EBN ṬĀWŪS, RAŻĪ-AL-DĪN ʿALĪ b. Mūsā b. Jaʿfar (b. Ḥella, 15 Moḥarram 589/21 January 1193; d. Baghdad, 5 Ḏu’l-qaʿda 664/8 August 1266), Imami author, scholar, and bibliophile, called Ḏu’l-ḥasabayn “possessing two distinctions” because he was descended from both Ḥasan and Ḥosayn b. ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭāleb.

Ebn Ṭāwūs grew up in Ḥella, studying with his maternal grandfather Warrām b. Abī Ferās Naḵaʿī (d. 605/1208), and his father Saʿd-al-Dīn Mūsā, whose mother was a daughter (or granddaughter) of Abū Jaʿfar Moḥammad Ṭūsī. Following his marriage to Zahrāʾ Ḵātūn, daughter of the Shiʿite vizier Nāṣer b. Mahdī (d. 617/1220), he lived in Baghdad for at least fifteen years. The caliph al-Mostanṣer (r. 623-40/1226-42) tried to draw him into politics, offering him the post of naqīb (chief) and asking him to act as his emissary to the Mongol ruler; but Ebn Ṭāwūs declined (Ebn Ṭāwūs, 1950, pp. 112-14). al-Mostanṣer also failed to persuade him to issue fatwās. He performed the pilgrimage in 627/1230 (Ebn Ṭāwūs, 1965, pp. 68-69, 248), perhaps the only time he left Iraq. By 641/1243-44 he had returned to Ḥella, later living about three years each in Najaf and Karbalāʾ. He had hoped to spend three years in Samarra, which he describes as an isolated spot, “like a monastery in the wilderness” (1950, p. 118), but returned to Baghdad in 652/1254.

He was still there when the Mongols captured the city, but he came to no harm. After a brief stay in Ḥella, he returned to Baghdad in 656/1258 following his appointment by Hülegü (Holākū) as naqīb of the ʿAlids. (The report that he was appointed naqīb al-noqabāʾ of Iraq in 661/1262 perhaps refers to a later appointment as naqīb of all the ʿAlids of Iraq; pseudo- Ebn al-Fowaṭī, p. 350) It is hard to tell what Ebn Ṭāwūs’ attitude to the Mongols was. In his Ketāb al-eqbāl (Tehran, 1320/1902, pp. 588, 600) he expresses his gratitude to the Mongol ruler; he also sent him one of his works. In contrast, Ebn ʿEnaba (d. 828/1424) says that Ebn Ṭāwūs originally intended to turn down the appointment as naqīb but was warned by Naṣīr-al-Dīn Ṭūsī that refusal would be suicidal (Nāma-ye dānešvarān I, pp. 176-77; cf. Ebn ʿEnaba, 1984, pp. 131-32). Once installed in office, Ebn Ṭāwūs came to believe that under the new circumstances it was his duty to hold a position of leadership. As he reports in the Eqbāl (pp. 599-600), he read in the eschatological work al-Malāḥem of Baṭāʾenī (3rd/9th century) that Imam Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq had said that after the destruction of the ʿAbbasid empire Moḥammad’s community would be ruled by a just and honest person from the ahl-al-bayt, who in turn would be succeeded by the Qāʾem. Ebn Ṭāwūs believed—and fervently hoped—that he was that just and honest person. Ebn ʿEnaba says that Ebn Ṭāwūs held the position of naqīb for three years and eleven months and died in office (Nāma-ye dānešvarān I, p. 177), but Tāj-al-Dīn b. Zohra (p. 58) reports that Ebn Ṭāwūs was removed from office near the end of his life. If so, it is likely that this removal gave rise to the report that both he and his brother Aḥmad died as martyrs (Baḥrānī, I, p. 307). He was buried in Najaf.

Ebn Ṭāwūs was apparently quite well off, having purchased real estate over the years. To posterity he is known as ṣāḥeb al-karāmāt (doer of miracles); he relates a number of such incidents and is also reported to have been in direct contact with the Twelfth Imam.

Ebn Ṭāwūs had three brothers: Šaraf-al-Dīn Moḥammad, killed during the sack of Baghdad; ʿEzz-al-Dīn Ḥasan, who had died two years earlier; and the well-known author and poet Jamāl-al-Dīn Aḥmad (d. 673/1274-5 or 677/1278-9), father of Ḡīāṯ-al-Dīn ʿAbd-al-Karīm (d. 693/1294), who himself wrote a number of books. In his writings Ebn Ṭāwūs mentions two sons and four daughters; both the eldest son Moḥammad (643-80/1245-82) and the younger son Abu’l-Qāsem ʿAlī (647-711/1249-1312) were naqībs of Baghdad and Najaf.

Strothmann juxtaposes Naṣīr-al-Dīn Ṭūsī, the scholar, statesman, and man of action with Ebn Ṭāwūs, “a modest unknown figure” and “the embodiment of Shīʿī quietism” who led a “lonely, uneventful life” (pp. 7, 88, 110). Though overstated, this is an apt description for the pre-Mongol period; Ebn Ṭāwūs advised his son Moḥammad that mixing in society is an intractable malady which distracts one’s mind from God and should therefore be reduced to a bare minimum (Ebn Ṭāwūs, 1950, pp. 101-02).

In his Ejāzāt (cited in Majlesī, CVII, p. 42), Ebn Ṭāwūs says that he shied away from feqh and wrote only one work on legal matters (Ḡīāṯ solṭān al-warā; excerpt published as Qabas men ketāb Ḡīāṯ solṭān al-warā, Qom, 1408/1987). He explains that he does not wish to provide answers to legal questions since the correct answers are a matter of dispute among Shiʿite scholars. He did go on to write another legal treatise, al-Mowāsaʿa wa’l-możāyaqa (ed. M.-ʿA. Ṭabāṭabāʾī Marāḡī as “Resālat ʿadam możāyaqat al-fawāʾet,” Torāṯonā 2, 1407/1986-87, pp. 331-59); both works dealt with prayer, a subject close to his heart. He avoided writing on kalām and was critical of the Muʿtazilites, whom he accused of turning self-evident truths into abstruse matters and of introducing doubt and confusion into the hearts of the believers (Ebn Ṭāwūs, 1950, pp. 17-22).

Although Ebn Ṭāwūs nowhere offers a systematic exposition of his beliefs, his writings show that he had clear views on all important issues in Twelver Shiʿite thought. For example, he held that prophets and imams were fully immune from major and minor sins and interpreted accordingly texts that seemed to conflict with this view. His belief that traditions of the imams are the main source of religious knowledge is characteristic of the Aḵbārī position. His emphasis on visits to the graves of the Imams, on the Shiʿite days of commemoration, and on supererogatory prayers and other acts of devotion highlight the popular elements in his thought. Particularly striking is his defense of such practices as esteḵāra (see DIVINATION) by casting lots (Fatḥ al-abwāb ... fi’l-esteḵārāt, ed. Ḥāmed al-Ḵaffāf, Beirut, 1409/1989, pp. 271-79, 286-93) and the use of talismans as remedies for illness (al-Amān men aḵṭār al-asfār wa’l-azmān, Qom, 1409/1988, p. 91), as well as his occasional resort to astrology.

Ebn Ṭāwūs left behind an impressive number of writings on such subjects as Hadith, supplications (daʿawāt), history, biography, polemics, and astrology. Of some sixty works whose titles are known, more than a third have come down in their entirety, while several others are partly preserved. Particularly popular was his Ketāb al-lohūf ʿalā qatla’l-ṭofūf (Tehran, 1321/1904; Baghdad, 1929; Tehran, 1348 Š./1979) on the Karbalāʾ tragedy. The Kašf al-maḥajja is an important source of information on Ebn Ṭāwūs’ life and thought, while the Faraj al-mahmūm has rich material on astrology and astrologers. A number of works of supplication, known collectively as al-Mohemmāt wa’l-tatemmāt, were conceived as a supplement to Ṭūsī’s Meṣbāḥ al-motahajjed al-kabīr; six of the original ten volumes are extant. To Ebn Ṭāwūs’s polemical anti-Sunni works belong al-Yaqīn be’ḵteṣāṣ mawlānā ʿAlī be emrat al-moʾmenīn (ed. M.-B. Anṣārī and M.-Ṣ. Anṣārī, Beirut, 1410/1989) and al-Ṭarāʾef fī maʿrefat maḏāheb al-ṭawāʾef (Qom, 1400/1980). The Ṭarāʾef is unique among Ebn Ṭāwūs’s writings in that it appeared under a pseudonym: ʿAbd-al-Maḥmūd b. Dāwūd Możarī, a member of the ahl al-ḏemma (i.e., a non-Muslim). The reason for this unusual procedure may have been taqīya; the book expresses strongly anti-Sunni sentiments and could have caused trouble with the ʿAbbasid authorities. Many of Ebn Ṭāwūs’s works were translated into Persian in the Safavid period.

Ebn Ṭāwūs’s works afford us a unique glimpse into his impressive library. According to his own testimony, it contained numerous works on the principles of religion (oṣūl), on prophecy and the imamate, on zohd, feqh, history, Koran exegesis, supplications, genealogy, medicine, grammar, poetry, alchemy, talismans, geomancy, and astrology (Ebn Ṭāwūs, 1950, pp. 128-37). The library is said to have held about 1,500 titles in 650/1252. At an unknown date Ebn Ṭāwūs wrote a catalogue of his library, al-Ebāna fī maʿrefat kotob al-ḵezāna. It has not survived. Later he decided to embark on a much more ambitious project by writing a work which would have the same chapter headings as the Ebāna, but in which each item in his library would not only be mentioned, but would also be discussed and its significance explained. This book, the Saʿd al-soʿūd, was begun in Ḏu’l-qaʿda 651/December 1253-January 1254. As we have it, the work consists of one volume divided into two chapters: the first on maṣāḥef (manuscripts of the Koran), the second on Koran commentary. Ebn Ṭāwūs apparently never went beyond this volume.

Ebn Ṭāwūs was inordinately interested in technical details of the manuscripts such as their format and date, and often noted the quire, folio, and, occasionally, even the line number of passages he quoted. In his extant works there are references to, or citations from, some 670 works, most of which were probably in his library. About a third of these works (both Sunni and Shiʿite) have not survived, and even the existence of some of them is only known thanks to Ebn Ṭāwūs. His writings thus considerably enhance our knowledge of medieval Arabic literature.


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(Etan Kohlberg)

Originally Published: December 15, 1997

Last Updated: December 6, 2011

This article is available in print.
Vol. VII, Fasc. 1, pp. 55-58