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Ahmad Ibn Hanbal was a founder of one of the four main Sunni schools of Jurisprudence. He developed fiqh but was also an expert in the study of Islamic oral traditions (the sayings - hadith). He famously and heroically held true to his beliefs despite the pressures of a Caliph who wished to impose his philosophical ideas on Islam.
This article was written by Adil Salahi and originally published by Impact magazine.
The Abbasid Caliph, Al-Mutawkkil was a strong admirer of Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal. He once sent him some rich gifts, including a large amount of money. A highly placed official at court, who wished Ahmad well, wrote to him that the gift was forthcoming and alerting him that, should he refuse it, there would be no shortage of people who would be quick to try to use that in order to sow discord between him and the Caliph. Nevertheless, Ahmad did not allow any part of the gift to enter his home. He distributed it all to poor and needy people, taking nothing for himself or his family.
Thus was Ahmad ibn Hanbal: a model of courage and honesty who cared little for worldly comforts and luxuries that money may buy. What a Caliph would give held no temptation for him. Yet he did not consider taking such a gift to be forbidden. His son once asked him whether he could offer the pilgrimage using money he received from the Caliph. He answered that he could, because it was money obtained from a legitimate source, explaining that he would not take it himself, as he wished to maintain a standard of purity that he imposed on no one else. If such an attitude was certain to ensure great fame for the scholar, let us now look into his life.
Although the name Ahmad has been over the whole history of Islam one of the most common names in Islamic culture and throughout the Muslim world, when it is mentioned on its own in any scholarly work of hadith or Fiqh, there can be no mistake that the reference is to Ahmad ibn Hanbal. Ahmad was the founder of the fourth school of thought, but the ranking is made only on the basis of chronological order. He was born in 164 AH, corresponding to 781 CE. This means that his birth took place 14 years after Abu Haneefah’s death, and 15 years before Malik’s death, but the two did not meet. He was a student of El-Shafie whom he respected very highly. His full name was Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Hanbal Al-Shaibani, which means that Hanbal was his grandfather, but the affiliation to his grandfather stuck to him, perhaps because his father died when he was a very young baby. Indeed he mentions that he did not see his father, which suggests that the father died when the young child was not yet able to recognise people with eyesight.
His grandfather was a governor in Persia, and although the family was purely an Arab one, it lived in Persia for many years that some of its members found it easier to converse in Persian, rather than Arabic. Ahmad himself spoke Persian, although the family moved to Baghdad when he was still very young. That helped Ahmad who showed strong inclinations to study and learning. His uncle was looking after the family, and directed his early studies, but it was his mother’s influence that had the clearest mark on his upbringing and future attitudes. She was a remarkable woman of very strong faith and serious attitude. His early promise was recognised by teachers and friends. Thus, he was known to be among scholars as ‘the pious young man’ and in his old age he was the master scholar withstanding torture and hardship for his beliefs.
Ahmad memorised the Quran at an early age, and as he was directed by his uncle and his mother to pursue his studies, his serious nature and early pious attitude ensured that he sought to study Fiqh, or Islamic jurisprudence. Baghdad was at the time not only the political capital of the vast Islamic state, stretching from the Atlantic in North Africa to Central Asia; it was also the most important centre of Islamic scholarship, witnessing at the same time the penetrating influence of other cultures, including Greek philosophy, Indian mythology and Persian traditions. Ahmad sought none of this, but went straight into the study of Fiqh, reading under Abu Yussuf, the best known student of Abu Haneefah. This means that his early studies took him into learning Fiqh that gave scholarly discretion a very high rank and relied much on analogy. But soon afterwards, he decided to pursue the study of hadith, delaying Fiqh study for a while.
Ahmad started his pursuit of the study of hadith in Baghdad at the age of 15, and continued to give it his full attention there for seven years. He realised that the main scholars of hadith did not all live in the capital. So he decided to seek them wherever they lived. He began to travel to Basrah, Kufah, Hijaz and Yemen. He is said to have travelled five times to Basrah, and paid a similar number of visits to Hijaz. However, in the latter trips he combined offering the pilgrimage with his studies.
On all these trips, Ahmad’s aim was to listen to the Prophet’s hadiths from scholars personally. He could have easily learnt the hadiths from their books, but he was keen to listen to their hadiths as they personally reported them. That is a recognised virtue of excellence in the scholarship of hadith, because it ensured a smaller number of reporters in the chain of transmission of a hadith between the student and the Prophet himself. A shorter chain of transmitters, who were all reliable and trustworthy, meant the room for error is practically non-existent. Hence, scholars were keen to seek a hadith at the shortest chain of transmission they could achieve, even though that might have required them to undertake a long journey.
His trip to Yemen was one such effort. He was keen to meet Abdurrazzaq ibn Hammam, an eminent scholar of hadith who was at the time, and remains today, widely famous. In fact he had met Abdurrazzaq during pilgrimage, and he could have learnt from him whatever he wanted to learn, sparing himself a long journey to Yemen, but he preferred to learn from the scholars of Makkah and Madinah while he was on pilgrimage, and to go to Abdurrazzaq in Yemen later. That way, he would hope for God’s reward for his arduous journey and get all that he could from the Yemeni scholar in his home surroundings.
Up to this stage, we recognise two major influences on Ahmad’s scholarship: the early study of Fiqh under Abu Yussuf and the hadith study through which he collected a wealth of statements by the Prophet, or hadiths, together with rulings by the Prophet’s companions and their successors as well as their judgements in disputes put to them. This represented a strong exposure to the practical application of hadith and other religious text, which means that he was not isolated from Fiqh during his study of hadith. However, a third influence was soon to have a major bearing on Ahmad and his scholarship. That was his meeting with El-Shafie who by that time had developed his methodological approach to Fiqh and the fundamental rules he set for construction and deduction of rulings and judgements. When he studied under El-Shafie, Ahmad started to review what he had learnt and collected of hadiths and reports of the Prophet’s companions and their successors so as to pinpoint the relevance of those texts and reports to practical matters. That gave him a profound insight in Fiqh which was rare among scholars of hadith. Thus, Ahmad was at the same time a top scholar of hadith and a top scholar of Fiqh. That combination gave him a rare standard of excellence.
It was not until Ahmad was 40 years of age that he had a circle where he taught and gave rulings on any question put to him. This does not mean that he would not have given rulings earlier than that. Indeed he would answer when a question was put to him, because abstention meant suppression of knowledge and that is forbidden in Islam. But he would not sit for teaching and issuing rulings until he was 40. He had two reasons for that: the first was to follow the Prophet’s example, who received his revelations and became a teacher for mankind at that age, and the other his respect for his teachers meant that he would not teach while they were alive. It was a coincidence that El-Shafie died in 204, when Ahmad was 40. A point to remember is that Abu Haneefah did the same, starting his study circle at the age of 40.
It did not take long for Ahmad to become widely known. Indeed his circle was soon very large, with some reports putting the number of students and listeners attending it at 5000, among whom one tenth wrote what he taught. While this may be rather exaggerated, even a circle one-fifth that size, i.e. 1000 students, is very large by any standard. People loved his teaching because they recognised in him a teacher of wide knowledge, and a highly pious man who spared no effort in the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge.
Three factors enhanced Ahmad’s popularity as a teacher. The first was that his serious attitude to learning and teaching was coupled with exemplary humility and contentment. Secondly, he was always keen to report only that of which he was absolutely certain. Hence, he did not rely on his memory, fine and sharp as it was. He always referred to his books, which he had written with his own hand, when he learnt from his teachers. He feared that if he would report from memory, he might be mistaken and he would attribute to the Prophet what the Prophet did not actually say. Thirdly, he taught his students to write down what they learnt of hadith only. He did not allow them to write anyone else’s views or teachings. To him, true knowledge that deserved to be documented was the Quran and the hadith.
This meant that despite the numerous trends of scholarship with which Baghdad was bustling at the time, Ahmad rejected any study that was not based on the Quran and hadith only. Thus, he would not take a logical approach to faith, nor would he discuss matters of faith in a purely rational or philosophical way. He rejected any involvement in debates of theological nature, such as whether God’s names and qualities mentioned in the Quran were purely attributes of His, or they were the same as Himself. To him, that was a pursuit that brought no useful results.
Ahmad ibn Hanbal combined qualities that are always certain to ensure a degree of exceptional excellence. The first of these is one he shares with all hadith scholars of repute; that is, a sharp memory coupled with penetrative insight. In this regard Ahmad is rated by many scholars who knew him well as having the clearest, sharpest and most reliable memory of all his contemporaries.
The other quality that stands out when we discuss Ahmad’s personality is his endurance and perseverance. This is the fruit of a strong will, sincerity and an aspiration to achieve only what is best. It gave him a most pleasant personality that combined poverty with generosity and dignity, self-respect with willingness to forgive those who caused him harm and injury, and a willingness to undertake difficulties in the pursuit of his goals. We will see how these qualities stood him in good stead during his long and hard trial when he was subjected to much persecution. As we try to delve deeper into his character, we find a person who derives his dignity from faith, relies on none other than God, aspires to nothing that a human being can confer, and fears God alone. Hence, he was a model of humility; always ready to overlook other people’s mistakes and forgive whatever they might have caused him of hardship.
Ahmad’s third quality was purity of heart in the broadest sense of the word. He never touched anything belonging to someone else, nor did he ever succumb to a desire. Moreover, his faith was pure, acknowledging no authority other than that of God. We find this quality rubbing off onto his scholarship. In beliefs and thought, he would not take any course other than that of the Prophet and his companions. In Fiqh, he would not even try to weigh up the different views of the Prophet’s companions. If they differed on one questions, he would consider their differing views as equally acceptable. He treated the tabieen, or successors to the Prophet’s companions in the same way.
His purity of heart affected his whole life. He tried his best to ensure that he would not touch any money, property or indeed anything that came from any source other than what he knew to be absolutely lawful. He would not accept money given to him by a teacher, friend, prince or Caliph. He was poor, living mostly on the rent he received for property he owned, but that rent was too little to give him a comfortable life. When a teacher like the Yemeni hadith scholar, Abdurrazzaq, tried to help him with some money as a gift, he apologised gently, pointing out that he preferred to live on his own earnings. Therefore, when he needed extra income, he worked, doing whatever job he could find. He did not hesitate even to copy with long hand a book for someone who needed it in return for some money.
Ahmad also maintained a high standard of honesty in everything he pursued. Thus, all his scholarship was for God’s sake. He sought no recognition or position. Even when he was young, he would not carry his writing material in a visible way; he would hide them so that people would not say that he was going to study, or that he was a scholar.
It was an awesome scene in a terrifying place. The Caliph, Al-Mustassim, who was a courageous fighter and an uncompromising ruler, tried hard with the assistance of Al-Mutazilah scholars to persuade Ahmad ibn Hanbal to agree to their line of thinking stating that the Quran is a ‘creature of God’. Great and tempting promises were offered and hard punishment was threatened but he would not budge. The punishment was to be carried out there and then. A well-wisher who belonged to scholarly circles approaches him and whispers: “Why subject yourself to all this torture when God allows you to spare yourself by telling them what they wish to hear and maintain your own beliefs.” Ahmad asked him whether he knew who was outside. The man said: “There are more than a thousand people carrying pen and paper.” He said: “Yes. They all want to know what Ahmad says on this issue. If I conceal what I believe to be the truth in order to spare myself, this wrong idea will spread and flourish for generations to come. I will not meet my Lord having helped to spread it.” He remained steadfast bearing excessive torture.
Ahmad’s great test of endurance and hardship began towards the end of the reign of the Abbasid Caliph, Al-Ma’moon, when the philosophical school known as Al-Mutazilah was on the ascendance. The Caliph himself was a scholar who loved philosophy and debate. He favoured Al-Mutazilah because of their logical approach to all matters. One major issue Al-Mutazilah raised was that of the position of the Quran in relation to God. It is well known that all Muslims believe that the Quran is, literally, the word of God, but Al-Mutazilah added that it was ‘created’, in the sense that it did not share God’s attribute of being ‘ever-present’. This attribute belonged to God and to no one and nothing else.
The Caliph accepted this view and defended it with enthusiasm. He even wrote in his will that he bears witness that ‘God is unlike anything else. He is One, the Sovereign of the universe with no partner. Everything else is a creation of His. The Quran cannot be anything other than the rest of creation, having the same qualities as everything else, while God is one with nothing like Him.’ He also urged his brother, Al-Mu’tassim, who was to succeed him, to follow his ideas.
As Al-Ma’moon was staying at Tartoos, he wrote to Ishaq ibn Ibraheem, his Deputy in Baghdad, to examine all scholars on this point, insisting that they must accept that the Quran was ‘created’ by God. The orders were carried out immediately, with the Deputy organising a meeting of all scholars and warning them that torture and affliction would be the lot of anyone who dissented. All scholars attending toed the official line, with the exception of four, but two of these later followed suit and two were left unwilling to compromise. Ishaq ibn Ibraheem decided to send them over to the Caliph, in fetters, as his orders specified. The two were Ahmad ibn Hanbal and Muhammad ibn Noah. On the journey, the latter scholar died, a martyr, and Ahmad was transported to the Caliph. However, a couple of days later, news of the Caliph’s own death were received, but the travelling party continued their journey until they arrived at the door of his successor, Al-Mu’tassim.
Al-Mu’tassim was in no way a scholar, nor did he understand what the whole issue was about. He was more of a military commander, but he loved his brother, Al-Ma’moon and trusted his judgement. Therefore, he was bent on carrying to the letter his brother’s will, requiring him to eradicate the opposite view. Hence, Ahmad was brought to him, in fetters, and was asked about his views on the question at issue, i.e. the position of the Quran. He said in court, which was attended by a large number of scholars, mostly of Al-Mutazilah, that the whole subject was not mentioned in the Quran, the hadith or by the Prophet’s companions. As such, it was better and safer not to be involved in such theological arguments and to confine oneself only to stating that the Quran was God’s word. They would not accept that from him. Because of his popularity and high standing, they tried both to tempt him to agree and to scare him of the consequences of refusal, but without success. Hence, they inflicted on him physical torture, with slaves beating him up with whips, but he would not give in. Then he was taken to prison. This was carried out repeatedly over a period of 28 months, but Ahmad would not budge.
Ahmad’s popularity increased, as people admired his resolute stand. Therefore, he was released, but placed under house arrest. He was banned from teaching or meeting other people. This continued for the rest of the reign of Al-Mu’tassim and his son, Al-Wathiq. However, when Al-Mutawkkil succeeded Al-Wathiq, in 232 AH, 837 CE, the trouble was over, as he leaned towards scholars of Fiqh and hadith, among whom Ahmad was the top figure. That was a time when Ahmad could have avenged himself against those who persecuted him, but he absolved them all of everything they did, seeking no revenge whatsoever.
To the end of his life, Ahmad maintained his position on the central question in this difficult period. He believed that the Quran was part of God’s knowledge, and His word revealed to His last messenger, Muhammad [peace be on him]. It was not a ‘creature’ of God. He relied in this on the fact that neither the Prophet nor any of his companions stated anything of the sort. Hence, Muslims should maintain the same position and refrain from such logical and theological debate that was bound to be futile.
Imam Ahmad devoted all his scholarly work to hadith and Fiqh. He attained a very high position in both disciplines, but this has led some scholars to classify him among the scholars of one speciality rather than the other. Whatever anybody may feel, the truth is that Ahmad was a scholar of Fiqh who paid great attention to hadith so that hadith became his distinctive scholarly mark. We will consider Ahmad’s work in both capacities.
Imam Ahmad started his collection of hadith early in his scholarly career, and continued his efforts throughout his life. He kept all his material carefully, but without putting what he collected in any specific order. Late in his life, when he feared that what he collected might be lost, he gathered his sons and a few of his best students and related all his collection to them. He aimed to revise it all and classify it, but he died before he could do so. That task was left to his son Abdullah ibn Ahmad, who was a distinguished scholar of hadith in his own right. Abdullah added some hadiths which confirmed those collected by his father on different topics.
The system of classification followed by Abdullah ibn Ahmad was different from that of the other main collections of hadith which followed aspects of Fiqh. Al-Musnad is classified according to the first reporter of hadith, which means that it relates all the hadiths reported by one companion of the Prophet, regardless of subject matter. When these have been documented, a new chapter is started to relate all the hadiths reported by another companion, and so on. This makes it very difficult to use Al-Musnad by anyone who is not a scholar of hadith. This method of classification is useful in knowing the scholarly standpoint and views of each companion of the Prophet, but this is a specialised area.
Ahmad was keen to make his collection highly authentic. He was always looking into it, dropping any hadith that he suspected to have not been accurately reported. But he did not drop all the hadiths that were lacking in authenticity. He says to his son, Abdullah: “Had I aimed to include only what is highly authentic, I would have related only a small portion, but you, my son, know my method in relating hadith. I do not contradict a hadith whose authenticity is questionable unless there is some other hadith on the same subject to contradict it.”
This means that Al-Musnad includes some hadiths that are somewhat lacking in authenticity, but, as Imam Ibn Taimiyah says, there is not a single hadith in Al-Musnad that has been proven to be false or fabricated.
That Ahmad was a top scholar of Fiqh is a matter of no doubt, but his Fiqh scholarship was based on his excellence in hadith. Suffice it to say that when Al-Bukhari completed his Sahih collection, he chose Ahmad to review it for him, and Ahmad raised questions only on four hadiths in the book that was destined to become the best known in the Muslim world for 12 centuries so far. Hence, Ahmad’s fiqh is closest to the Sunnah and hadith. However, the mainstay of Ahmad’s fiqh may be summed up as follows.
1. Religious text, meaning the Quran and the hadith. When Ahmad finds a text applicable to a question, he adopts that and does not consider any other view, not even a ruling by any companion of the Prophet.
2. Rulings by the Prophet’s companions when there was nothing to contradict these. He would not say that such a ruling represented unanimity, but he would only say that he did not know of any opposing view.
3. If he had different views of the Prophet’s companions, he would choose the one that was more in line with the Quran and the Sunnah. If he could not determine that, he would report their disagreement without favouring any view. In this he is different from El-Shafie who would weigh up the different views and come out in preference of one. Ahmad considers analogy to be of lesser value than the view of a companion of the Prophet.
4. Ahmad places some of the less authentic hadiths ahead of analogy, or qiyas, as a source of rulings. Such hadiths would be the ones whose reporters are not of the highest calibre on reliability, but are not accused of falsification or fabrication. This means that Ahmad would uphold the views of scholars of the generation of tabieen, who were successors to the Prophet’s companions. If there were several views of this degree, he would consider them all acceptable.
5. Analogy, or qiyas, to which he resorted only when necessary. However, he relies on this source less than other scholars, including El-Shafie.
6. Unanimity of scholars, which is accepted as a main source of legislation by all schools of thought. However, Ahmad felt that such unanimity is very hard to achieve, particularly after the generation of the Prophet’s companions. For unanimity to be ascertained, there must be no dissenting views, and with scholars available in every main city, it was very difficult to achieve.
7. Serving the interests of the individual or the community, provided that these interests fit in with the aims of the religion and do not contradict any statement in the Quran or the Sunnah. This is what is known as massalih mursalah.
8. Means of accomplishing ends. This is a principle that has been refined by the Hanbali School of thought. What it entails is that if something leads to a forbidden end, it is forbidden, and if it facilitates the accomplishment of a duty, it becomes a duty or highly recommended. For example, Ahmad imposes the payment of blood money, like in accidental killing, on a person who prevents another to eat or drink until he dies, because his action led to his death. He also makes it forbidden for a shopkeeper to slash his prices in order to damage his neighbour’s business.
9. An initial ruling remains valid unless we have clear evidence to show that it has changed. This is what is known in Islamic jurisprudence as istishab. What it means in practice is that all transactions and conditions incorporated in them are permissible unless they are clearly forbidden, because all things are initially permissible unless they come under a specific prohibition. The Hanbali School of thought implements this principle far more widely than the rest.
The Hanbali School of thought is rich with diverse opinions. We often have more than one Hanbali view on the same question. Several reasons have contributed to this, such as the fact that Ahmad would accept as valid all the views reported to have been expressed by the Prophet’s companions, without favouring any of them. Another reason was that Ahmad would not give a ruling unless he studied the question in relation to the parties involved. Thus he may give two different rulings on very similar questions because the parties in each time have different circumstances, and he takes these into consideration. Moreover, over the years there were many highly distinguished scholars belonging to the Hanbali School who attained the grade of making independent ijtihad, or the exercise of scholarly discretion. These have greatly enriched Hanbali scholarship.
The Hanbali School of thought has not spread far and wide as the other three, mainly because it was the last of the four to develop. However, it always remained the one followed in the heart of Arabia, and after the establishment of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia it has spread to all parts of the Arabian Peninsula apart from Yemen and Oman. It continues to constitute a very valuable contribution to Islamic scholarship. Ahmad died in 241 A.H, corresponding to 856 CE. May God bless his soul.