Born in Karmakol, near the village of Al Dabbah in the Northern Province of Sudan, he studied at the University of Khartoum before leaving for the University of London in England. Coming from a background of small farmers and religious teachers, his original intention was to work in agriculture. However, excluding a brief spell as a schoolmaster before coming to England, his working life was in broadcasting.
For more than ten years, Salih wrote a weekly column for the London-based Arabic language newspaper al Majalla in which he explored various literary themes. He worked for the BBC's Arabic Service and later became director general of the Ministry of Information in Doha, Qatar. He spent the last 10 years of his working career with UNESCO in Paris, where he held various posts and was UNESCO's representative in the Gulf States.
Tayeb Saleh's writing is drawn from his experience of communal village life that is centered on people and their complex relationships. "At various levels and with varying degrees of psychoanalytic emphasis, he deals with themes of reality and illusion, the cultural dissonance between the West and the exotic orient, the harmony and conflict of brotherhood, and the individual's responsibility to find a fusion between his or her contradictions"  (Tayeb Salih (n.d)). It can be said that the motifs of his books are derived from his Islamic background and his experience of modern Africa, both pre- and post-colonial (Tayeb Salih (n.d)).
Mawsim al-Hijra ila al-Shamal was published in Arabic in 1966, and in English as Season of Migration to the North in 1969. It is narrated by a young man who returns to his village of Wad Hamad in the northern Shamaliyah province in Sudan, after studying in Europe for seven years, eager to make a contribution to the new postcolonial life of his country. Once back, the narrator discovers a stranger among the familiar faces of childhood: the enigmatic Mustafa Sa’eed. Sa'eed takes the young man into his confidence, "telling him the story of his own years in London in the early part of the twentieth century, of his brilliant career as an economist, and of the series of fraught and deadly relationships with European women that led to a terrible public reckoning and his return to his native land."
Salih achieved immediate acclaim when Season of Migration to the North was first published in Beirut. In 2001, the book was declared “the most important Arabic novel of the 20th century” by the Arab Literary Academy.
The novel was banned in Saleh's native Sudan for several years despite the fact that it won him prominence and fame worldwide. The novel was adapted into a theater production in Israel.
Urs' al-Zayn (published in English as "The Wedding of Zein) is a comic novella published in 1969 centering on the unlikely nuptials of the town eccentric Zein. Tall and odd-looking, with just two teeth in his mouth, Zein has made a reputation for himself as the man who falls in love over and over with girls who promptly marry other men- to the point where mothers seek him out in hopes that he will draw the eye of available suitors to their eligible daughters. (The Boston Bibiophile, 2010)
the year he stroke up the yearly award Yearly Award, Endorsed by Tayeb Salih during his life and organized by Abdelkarim Mirghani Cultural Centre, Omdurman,Sudan. A group of Salih's friends and fans formed a committee to honour him in 1998. The committee collected $ 20,000 for Tayeb Salih’s personal use. However, he indicated his desire to utilize the money in launching a cultural initiative that supports literary life in Sudan. Abdelkarim Mirghani Cultural Centre's Board of Trustees established an independent secretariat to administer the Prize award and the associated activities. A committee of writers and academics in Sudan receives and evaluates the participating novels, and selects the winners. The winners are announced on the 21st of October of each year and the winning titles are published by Abdelkarim Mirghani Cultural Centre. The award of the Prize is usually accompanied by a conference on various aspects of Sudanese literature.
The first Prize was awarded in 2003.
In 2008, Abdelkarim Mirghani Cultural Centre launched another prize under the name Tayeb Salih Short Story Writing Prize for Youth.
Altayeb Salih Prize for Creative Writing
- Yearly Award, started after his death located Khartoum, Sudan in KICS (Khartoum International Community School). This award is only open to students of KICS and not the general public.
The prize has, year by year, acquired more significant importance and worth with expansion of the domain of participation from all over nations of the world, besides the magnificent and distinctive organization of the conclusive works which are always attended by first vice-president of the republic of Sudan, Ali Osman Mohamed Taha. However, board of trustees of the Prize has announced, this year, the launch of the third session whose conclusive events will be run during the coming February.
- Doumat wad Hamid (1960)
- 'Urs al-Zayn(1964)
- A Handful of Dates (short story 1964) 
- Mawsim al-Hijra ila al-Shamal (1967)
- Daw al-Bayt (Bandarshah I) (1971)
- Maryud (Bandarshah II) (1976)