A grandson of `Abd AL-Muttalib, a cousin of the Prophet and the greatest ever commentator of the Qur’an. He was born three years before the Prophet’s migration to Madinah, who was then confined, along with his clan Banu Hashim, in the Abu Talib valley at Makkah. The infant received the Prophet’s saliva in his mouth when presented after birth. He migrated toMadinah along with his father just before the fall of Makkah. From then on, he remained in the company of the Prophet (saws), noting his activities of the day and night with his keen eyes. His mother Umm Fadhl is said to have been the second woman to embrace Islam after Khadijah. His maternal aunt Maymuna (Umm Fadl’s sister) was a wife of the Prophet. Thus, he opened his eyes in the laps of a believing woman, and grew up under the tutorship of a knowledgeable woman. He served the Prophet, attending to his personal needs. Pleased with his services, the Prophet (saws) supplicated for him in words: “O Allah! Grant him understanding of religion and the knowledge of interpretation (of the Qur’an).”
After the Prophet’s death, Ibn ‘Abbas would go from Companion to Companion, squatting at the door-steps, waiting for them to appear, seeking knowledge of the Qur’an and Sunnah. Within a short period, he had become a scholar of such caliber that although yet in his teens, ‘Umar (ra) would give him a seat in the assembly of the elders of Madinah which includedBadri Companions, and consulted him in some affairs. (After `Umar, `Uthman also continued to consult him). Perhaps it was to expose his knowledge of the Qur’an that `Umar once inquired in an assembly as to how they understood Surah al-Nasr which said, “When come Allah’s help and opening and you see the people entering into Islam in droves, then chant the glory of your Lord in praises and seek His forgiveness; surely He is ever Forgiving.” While others kept quiet, Ibn `Abbas explained that the chapter had predicted the death of the Prophet.
On another occasion, when he heard that people in some parts of the Islamic world were group-studying the Qur’an, he remarked that (being new in Islam and not knowing Arabic Language) the practice could lead to misunderstandings. `Umar agreed with him.
Soon he was a notary of the town. Crowds of people went up to him to ask questions pertaining to the Qur’an and Sunnah. Since he had mastered several disciplines, he held various classes on various days of the week: A day for Tafsir , a day for Fiqh, a day for Ghazawaat, etc. At times, the alley leading to his house would be jam-packed. On some occasions, a crowd of people would be led into his room to seek clarifications over Qur’anic verses after whose exit another crowd would follow.
The crowds that followed him during Hajj matched in size with the retinue of Mu`awiyyah as the Caliph. And he never hesitated to offer correction to those in power. During Tawaf, he criticized Mu`awiyyah so many times – pointing out that touching the four corners of the Ka`ba during Tawaf was not a Sunnah – that Mu`awiyyah felt pestered. It is said that it was `Umar (ra) who first used the term Turjuman al-Qur’an in favor of Ibn ‘Abbas. Once, he delivered a lecture explaining the meaning and explanation of Surah Noor. Some scholars remarked that if the Jews and Christians of Syria and Iraq were there, they would have embraced Islam.
Many of his commentaries on verses dealing with scientific matters seem to be very close to what science has proved a millennium and a half later.
He was one of the four `Ibadullahs (servants of Allah) famous for their several achievements. Others being `Abdullah ibn `Umar,(for the knowledge of the Sunan), `Abdullah ibn `Amr(for his piety), and `Abdullah ibn Zubayr (for his courage). Thus, it can be seen that the four covered the best features of Islam. He also belonged to the panel of seven jurists from among the Companions. Others being: `Umar ibn al-Khattab, `A’isha, `Ali ibn abi Talib, `Abdullah ibn Mas`ud, Zayd ibn Thabit and `Abdullah ibn `Umar. (These are known asFuqahaa al-Sab`a).
No scholar, however, can always be free of error. Ibn `Abbas held the opinion for a while that Muta` (temporary marriage) was legal until the better-informed `Ali corrected him that after being legal, it was prohibited by the Prophet at the time of the Khayber campaign in the sixth year after Hijrah.
He began to pronounce religious rulings (fatawa) even from the time of ‘Umar. He is said to have possessed a very powerful memory. ‘Umar ibn Rabi’ah, the poet, once recited a poem of his composition before him. It had eighty verses. Ibn Abbas memorized them on the spot. He is also known as Habr al-Ummah, (Scholar par excellence of the Ummah). Once, when Zayd ibn Haritha mounted his horse, ‘Abdullah ibn Abbas began to lead it by its halter. Zayd said: “Do not do that, O son of the Prophet’s uncle!” Ibn ‘Abbas replied: “This is how we have been taught to respect our scholars.” Zayd said: “Stretch your hand.” When he did, he kissed it, and said, “This is how we have been taught to respect the Ahl al-Bayt al-Nabiyy.”
He stayed away from internal strife. But he had advised `Ali not to shift his Capital to Kufa and not to replace the Governors that were appointed by `Uthman. He had also advised Ibn al-Zubayr not to demolish the Ka`ba to reconstruct on the design of Ibrahim (asws), which was not listened to. He was appointed the Governor of Basra for a while, where, in the month of Ramadan, he delivered Tafsir of the Qur’an every Friday.
A massive and handsome man who dressed himself well, he lost his eyesight in old age. Before going totally blind, when his eyes became watery and he was advised a treatment, he refused on grounds that it involved not doing Prayers from a standing position for five consecutive days. It were the same eyes that had seen Jibril twice. At one time, his father was speaking to the Prophet. Apparently he was asking something and the Prophet was answering him. Later, his father asked him whether he was there too. Ibn `Abbas replied that he was very much there and had seen the man who had been whispering into the ear of the Prophet. A surprised `Abbas told him that he had seen no such person. They learnt from theProphet that it was Jibril. Indeed, it is reported that he saw Jibril twice. He fasted every Monday and Thursday saying that he wished to be in a state of fast when men’s deeds are presented to Allah. Once Abu Ayyub Ansari happened to arrive at Basrah while Ibn `Abbas was the Governor of the town appointed by `Ali. Abu Ayyub was destitute. So Ibn `Abbas emptied his house for him, presented him with 40, 000 Dinars and 20 slaves explaining to Abu Ayyub that his act of vacating his house for the Prophet, when he had arrived atMadinah, is well-remembered.
Although a great collector of books, which were several camel loads, he did not author any work. His commentary of the Qur’an entitled “Tanwir al-Miqbas fir Tafsir ibn al-`Abbas” is a later collection of his Tafsir notes. But it has many weak reports. However, there are two chains of narration that are considered trustworthy. He possessed a good knowledge of Arabic Language, poetry and linguistics. When Nafi` ibn Azraq put before him some 200 questions, he replied to each of them with a poetical piece. Once before the battle would begin with the Kharijis, `Ali sent him to debate and convince them of their error. When he reached their camps, they got divided. Some said he may be allowed to speak while others held that there was no need. At last, he was allowed to speak. He spoke at length and it proved so effective that several thousand of the Kharijis broke away and joined `Ali’s forces.
Some Orientalists have tried to discredit him. The Brille Edition of the Encyclopedia of Islam tries to disparage him by saying, “He was the father of Qur’anic exegesis; at a time when it was necessary to bring the Qur’an into accord with the new demand of a society which had undergone profound transformation; he appears to have been extremely skilful in accomplishing this task.” (Art., `Abdullah ibn `Abbas). The hidden meaning is: Ibn `Abbas bent the Qur’anic commentary to confirm the Qur’an with the changing demands of his time. Considering the fact that the Qur’an is a living miracle, but beyond the understanding of superficial minds, poorly educated and trained to think in materialistic terms, the above statement can be excused.
A few other Orientalists took a different route to disparage him. They allege that he was much influenced by Jewish reports. It is true that Israeli reports penetrated Tafsir works, but, in actual fact, Ibn `Abbas had his own reservations and discouraged his students from quoting Israeli reports. He said in effect, “Do you take material from the Christian and Jewish sources, while your own Book contains the latest information, and while you know that they have corrupted their literatures? By Allah, they never care to ask you anything involving religious matters.”
But he was not merely a man of letters. He participated in Jihad fighting in Egypt, Africa, Jurjan, Tabaristan etc., and was there when Constantinople, the Roman capital was besieged. He commanded a wing of `Ali’s forces in the Jamal and Siffin battles. After `Ali’s death, Hasan ibn `Ali appointed him a Commander General of his troops which speaks of his military qualities. Following the Sunnah of the Prophets, he was also imprisoned for a while by Ibn Zubayr, the claimant to the Caliphate, a move which Ibn `Abbas had opposed. Al-Mukhtar received the information and sent a large number of troops to Makkah from Iraq specifically to free them. The troops succeeded because of the surprise attack. However, it was the wisdom of Ibn `Abbas that saved the holy city from bloodshed.
After a short service as the Governor of Basrah, he withdrew to Makkah. Those days the Basran Treasury was emptied, though it is not clear who did it, either Ibn `Abbas or his brother `Ubaydullah, nor is it clear where the funds were transferred, which could not have happened without the consent of `Ali who kept an eye on every Dirham of his jurisdiction. It is quite likely that he emptied it by paying off to the indigenous in fear that they may not get their share after him. He spent the rest of the life in Hijaz and died at Tayif at about 71 years of age.
Out of some 1, 700 of ahadith of his narration recorded by Ahmad, perhaps the most memorable is the following. Once he was the pillion rider of the Prophet on a camel. He told him,
The Musnad of Ahmad records 1674 narratives by him.