As a child I would for hours crouch along
The gentle rise of that old refuse pile, its last discarded
Entry from well before the Depression. Rhizomed grass and dropped leaves,
The archivists. I delved gently into the covering soil,
Turned black and loamy with the century past, and worked
Out bits of blue-and-white, medicinal bottles, metal melted back
Into elemental shape, and met the roots
Of the nearby sweetgum piercing the far more ancient sky above.
Beyond the daylilies nodded, following the sun. And so
I began to learn what it is to feel, rough and dark and smooth and giving-way, all,
The traces of the lives of others past, welling, up from the mothering ground.

The following little story is related in al-Sharazuri’s entry on the famous exegete and  historian al-Tabari. As you could gather from the story, al-Tabari’s two most renowned works were his massive tafsir and his equally massive history (tarikh) of the world, with a particular emphasis upon the parts he knew best, of course (the image above is taken from a later, partially illumined copy of his history). As the humorous story below demonstrates, he could have made both far longer. That, at least, was the perception of later scholars (like al-Sharazuri, who lived hundreds of years after al-Tabari) who had come to see al-Tabari as one of the crowning jewels of Muslim scholarship- though, this story might also insinuate, such an ability might be more than ordinary scholars could handle…


Al-Qadi Abu ‘Umar ‘Ubid Allah ibn Ahmad al-Samsar and Abu al-Qasm ibn ‘Aqil al-Waraq said that once Abu Ja’afar al-Tabari said to his disciples: ‘Are you in the mood for commentary on the Qur’an (atanshatun li-tafsir al-Qur’an)?’ They replied: ‘How long is it going to be?’ He said: ‘Thirty thousand pages,’ to which they replied: ‘This would use up entire lifetimes before it could be completed!’ So he condensed it to approximately three thousand pages. Then he said to them: ‘How do you feel about a history of the world from the time of Adam up to our own time?’ They replied: ‘How long is it going to be?’ So he said what he had said about the commentary, and the replied in the same way, to which he said: ‘Good Lord! Ambition is dead.’ So he condensed it in the same fashion as he had condensed the commentary.

Al-Sharazuri, Ṭabaqāt al-Fuqahāʼ al-Shāfiʻīyah