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 Murtaza Motahhari, Muhammad Beheshti, and Martyr Mofatteh. Others like Hossein Nasr and Hasanzadeh Amuli remained and continued their studies in the intellectual non-political sphere.