`Abdullah ibn `Abbas was born four or five years before the Hijrah. He had a keen intelligence and memory and was an inspired man. Allah’s Messenger prayed for him, “O God, make him perceptive and well versed in the religion and teach him the interpretation of the Qur’an.” In his life, he came to be called The Great Scholar of the Ummah or The Sea, meaning one very profound in knowledge or the interpreter of the Qur’an.
He was a very handsome, tall man endowed with great fluency of speech. His memory was such that he memorized, at one reading, a poem 80 couplets long by `Amr ibn Rabi`ah. Besides his profound knowledge of Qur’anic interpretation, tradition, and jurisprudence, he was also well versed in literature, particularly in the poetry of the pre-Islamic Age of Ignorance. Ibn Jarir At-Tabari relates, in his Tafseer, either a couplet or verse from him in connection with the interpretation of almost each verse of the Qur’an.
He was greatly loved by the Companions. Despite his youth, `Umar included him in his Advisory Council, the other members of which were chosen from the elders among the Companions. When asked why he had included that young man in the council, `Umar tested the council about their level of understanding of the Qur’an. He asked them about the meaning of Surat An-Nasr
[When comes the help of God, and victory, and you see men entering God’s religion in throngs, then proclaim the praise of Your Lord, and seek His forgiveness; for He is Oft-Returning (in grace and mercy)]
The elders answered, “It orders the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) to praise God and seek His forgiveness when he sees people entering Islam in throngs after the help of God and victory came.” `Umar did not like this and put the same question to Ibn `Abbas: What does this surah mean? Ibn `Abbas replied, “This surah implies that the death of God’s Messenger is near. Because, when people enter Islam in throngs, it means that the mission of Messengership has terminated.” `Umar turned to the council and explained, “That is why I include him among you.”
Ibn `Abbas was very famous for his deep insight, profound learning, keen memory, high intelligence, and perceptiveness. Besides, he was very modest. When he entered a place where people gathered, people would stand up in respect for him, but this made him uncomfortable and he said to them, “I beg you, for the sake of the help and shelter (you gave to the Prophet and the Emigrants), do not stand up for me!”
Although he himself was one of the most knowledgeable among the Ummah, Ibn `Abbas showed great respect to scholars. For example, he helped Zayd ibn Thabit mount his horse by holding the stirrup steady and explained, “We have been ordered to behave like this towards our scholars.” In return, Zayd ibn Thabit kissed his hand without approval and remarked. “We have been ordered to behave like this towards the relatives of God’s Messenger.”
Ibn `Abbas raised many scholars in every branch of religious knowledge. The School of Makkah, in jurisprudence, was founded by him. Leading scholars of the generation following the Companions, such as Sa`id ibn Jubayr, Mujahid ibn Jabr and `Ikrimah acknowledged that “‘Ibn `Abbas taught us whatever we know.”
The number of the Traditions narrated by Ibn `Abbas is about sixteen hundred.