He received his earlier education in his native
Tabriz city, mastering the elements of Arabic and the religious sciences. and at about the age of twenty set out for the great
Shiite university of
Najaf to continue more advanced studies.
 he studied at
Najaf, under masters such as
Mirza 'Ali Qadhi (in gnosis),
Mirza Muhammad Husain Na'ini,
Sheykh Muhammad Hossein Qaravi Esfahani (in Fiqh and Jurisprudence),
Sayyid Abu'l-Qasim Khwansari (in
Mathematics), as well as studying the standard texts of
Avicenna's Shifa, the Asfar of
Sadr al-Din Shirazi, and the Tamhid al-qawa'id of
Ibn Turkah. Along with
Sayyid Husayn Badkuba'i, he was a student of two of the most famous masters of the time, Sayyid Abu'l-Hasan Jilwah and Aqa 'Ali Mudarris Zunuzi.
In his later years he would often hold study sessions with
Henry Corbin and
Seyyed Hossein Nasr, in which not only the classical texts of divine wisdom and
gnosis were discussed, but also a whole cycle of what Nasr calls comparative gnosis, in which in each session the sacred texts of one of the major religions, containing mystical and gnostic teachings, such as the
Tao Te Ching, the
Upanishads and the
Gospel of John, were discussed and compared with
Sufism and Islamic gnostic doctrines in general.
Tabataba'i, was a philosopher, a prolific writer, and an inspiring teacher to his students who devoted much of his life to Islamic studies. Many of his students were among the ideological founders of the
Islamic Republic of Iran, namely
Muhammad Beheshti, and
Martyr Mofatteh. Others like
Hossein Nasr and Hasanzadeh Amuli remained and continued their studies in the intellectual non-political sphere.