As promised, Allah has sent down on this earth, from time to time, outstanding scholars to protect His religion from distortion. Such scholars were pious, profoundly knowledgeable, and an embodiment of courage. One of such names is definitely Imam Ahmad ibn Mohammad ibn Hanbal – and is considered by many as the man who disregarded everything to follow the traditions of this religion.
Birth & Origin
Born in Rabi’ Awwal AH 164 (November 780 CE), Imam Ahmad belongs a noble house of Bani Shayban in Baghdad. His father passed away before his birth. His mother took care of him and brought him up in the most proper manner.
She was keen that he learns the different disciplines of knowledge prevalent at that time. So, he memorized the Noble Qur’an and applied himself enthusiastically to the knowledge of Hadith. He would get up at dawn to be the first student to attend the knowledge circle of his sheikh.
During his teens, he joined the circle of Abu Yusuf, a disciple of Imam Abu Hanifah and the first person to hold the post of Chief Judge. His circle was unspeakably splendid. It attracted seekers of knowledge, scholars, as well as judges of different classes and ranks. Imam Ahmad attended this circle for four years. He recorded in writing all what he learned there, which formed a great amount of papers.
He also used to attend the circle of Imam Hasheem ibn Basheer As-Solamy, the grand scholar of Hadith in Baghdad. Moreover, whenever he heard that a knowledgeable scholar came to Baghdad, he would seek to acquire knowledge from him. In this regard, he learned from the great scholars Na’eem ibn Hammad, Abdul-Rahman ibn Mahdi, and ‘Umayr ibn Abdullah ibn Khaled.
Name and lineage
Imam’s full name is Aḥmad Ibn Moḥammad Ibn Ḥanbal Abu Abdullah Al-Shaybani. He was originally from Baghdad. Imam’s grandfather, Hanbal, was the governor of Sarkhas during the Umayyad period. His father Muhammad was a soldier Abbasid Army in Khurasan. His tribe was Banu Shayban which was known for courage and chivalry. Imam Ahmad was descended from a pure Arabic lineage that coincided with the lineage of the Prophet Mohammad (S.A.W.) from Nizar Bin Maad Bin Adnan from the clan of Banu Bakr bin Wail. Imam’s mother was Safiiya Bint Maimoona, who was also from the tribe of Shayban from the clan of Banu Amir.
Imam Ahmad was born and raised in Baghdad, Iraq. He was born in the Islamic month of Rabi-ul-Awwal, 164 AH (780 AD). His father Mohammad died young at the age of thirty and Imam Ahmad was, therefore, raised as an orphan, which is the reason why he learned to be self-reliant from childhood.
Seekers of knowledge at the time were known for their journeys in the pursuit of religious knowledge, especially Hadith. Regardless of the high cost and distance of this kind of journeys, seekers of knowledge would travel throughout the Muslim World where the eminent jurists and scholars of Hadith live to acquire knowledge.
Imam Ahmad commenced his blessed journey in the pursuit of Hadith in AH 186 (802 CE) at the age of 22. He went to Basra, Koufa, Ar-Riqqa, Yemen, and Al-Hijaz (i.e., Makkah and Madinah) where he met a number of prominent and great scholars and jurists of the Ummah, such as Yahya ibn Sa’id Al-Qattan, Abu Dawud At-Tayalisi, Waki’ ibn Al-Jarraah, Abu Mu’awiyah Ad-Darir, Sufyan ibn Uyainah, and Ash-Shafe’i.
He dedicated himself to studying at the hands of Ash-Shafe’i for a period of time, during which he learned fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) and its principles. He was such a devout seeker of knowledge that Imam Ash-Shafe’i said about him that there was no one in Baghdad that was more knowledgeable in religion and skillful in memorizing hadiths than Imam Ahmad.
His great passion for seeking Hadith made him bear every difficulty willingly. Despite his great knowledge and high status among eminent scholars, he proceeded to seek knowledge from others. Though his sheikhs and colleagues attested to the ample knowledge he possessed, he did not feel embarrassed at all to sit among students to receive knowledge from others.
Seeing Imam Ahmad holding the inkwell by means of which he would write what he learned, a contemporary of him commented, “O father of Abdullah, [You sit among students] despite the high level of knowledge you have reached. You are the imam of Muslims [in knowledge]!” The reply of Imam Ahmad came thus: “With the inkwell till I go to the grave.”
Imam Ahmed studied extensively in Baghdad. When he finished his primary/elementary Islamic education (the Maktab), Imam began to attend study circles at higher level of Islamic education at the age of fourteen. Then he began to focus on studying Hadith in 179 AH (795 AD).
Further Studies/Education and His Teachers
He started learning jurisprudence (Fiqh) under the celebrated Islamic scholar, Abu Yusuf, who was a renowned student and companion of Imam Abu Hanifa . Then Imam Ahmad remained student of Hushaim Bin Basheer until his death in 183 AH (799 AD). During his studies, he heard about the death of Imam Malik. He then went to Kufah where he became famous as an authority on reports narrated from Hushaim Bin Basheer. He memorized all the books of Imam Wakee Ibn Al-Jarah and was also taught by him. Imam Ahmad leaned Islamic law from Imam Al-Shafi’ee .
Imam Ahmad began traveling through Iraq, Syria, and Arabia to collect hadiths. During his travel, he wrote down bout three hundred thousand Hadiths.
He learned and wrote Hadith from more than 280 scholars including:
- Yaqub Ibn Ibrahim Al-Ansari (better known as Abu Yusuf)
- Imam Al-Shafi’ee
- Hushaim Bin Basheer
- Ibrahim Ibn Saad
- Yahya Bin Saeed Al-Qattan
- Abu Moḥammad Sufyan Ibn Uyaynah
- Imam Yazeed Bin Haroon
- Imam Wakee Ibn Al-Jarah
and from other scholars at their time.
It did not take long for Imam Ahmad to become widely known. More and more people started to become his students. People loved his teaching because he possessed wide knowledge about Islam and he was recognized as a highly pious man who spared no effort in the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge.
As reported by Imam Adh-Dhahabi (Full Name: Abu Abdullah Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Uthmaan ibn Qaymaaz Adh-Dhahabi) in his book ‘Siyar Alaam An-Nubala’ that sixty-six people have learnt different Islamic Laws, Fiqh, Hadith, Fatwas and other Islamic knowledge from Imam Ahmad and many other besides them. Imam Adh-Dhahabi also stated that there were more than fifty of Imam’s senior students who had wrote down numerous ‘Fatwas’ on various issues from Imam Ahmad. His most notably students include:
- Abu Al-Hasan Ali Ibn Muhammad Al-Mawardi
- Abu Bakr Al-Athram
- Salih Bin Ahmad (Imam’s son)
- Abdullah Bin Ahmad (Imam’s son)
- Abu Dawood Sulayman (famously known as Abu Dawood)
- Hambal bin Ishaaq
and many other well-known scholars of that time.
As a teacher Imam Hanbal’s success was unmatchable. Scholars, students of knowledge, and ordinary Muslims from different backgrounds used to join his lectures in multitudes. It is reported that in some lectures of Imam Hanbal the number of participants were around 5000. An unimaginable number of giants of Islam have learnt this religion from him including Imam Mohammad ibn Ismail Al Bukhari [died on 256 Hijri], Imam Muslim ibn Hajjaj [died on 261 Hijri], Iman Abu Dawood As Sijistani [died on 275 Hijri], Imam Mohammad ibn Isa At Tirmidi [died on 279 Hijri], and Imam Abu Abdir Rahman An Nasai [died on 303 Hijri].
Imam Hanbal was a master in the field of Fiqhul Hadith. He memorized more than hundred thousand Hadiths according to many reports. He has written many books – the most famous one is Al Musnad. This book is one of the largest available collections of Hadiths comprising 52 volumes. After examining more than 750,000 Hadiths, Imam Hanbal selected only around 30,000 Hadiths narrated by 904 companions and they were organized on the basis of individual companions.
Imam Hanbal also achieved mastery in the other branches of knowledge including Tafseer, Fiqh (i.e. Islamic jurisprudence) and history. Imam Shafi commented about his student Hanbal, reportedly stating: “I left Baghdad and I did not leave behind me someone more pious, cautious (regarding doubtful matters), understanding (in fiqh) and knowledgeable than Ahmad”.
Imam Hanbal was married when he was around 40 years old. His first wife was Ayisha binte Fazl who gave birth to Imam Hanbal’s eldest son Salih. According to some historians after the death of Ayisha, Imam Hanbal married Raihana. Another version suggests that Imam Hanbal married her during the lifetime of his first wife and she was the mother of their famous son Abdullah who also became a scholar and narrated many Hadiths from his father.
Trials and imprisonment
The biography of Imam Hanbal is incomplete without the description of his valiant role against the trial (fitnah) of Mutazilaism (philosophical rationalism). This fitnah was certainly one of the most critical trials for the Ummah. The ideology of this deviant sect had an innovative approach to interpret the verses of Al Quran, especially with regard to the verses relating to description of Allah. They propagate the philosophy to interpret these verses metaphorically. They also believed that Al Quran is a creation and not the words of Allah.
The initial Abbasid Caliphs were against this innovation and took strict action against the propagators of Mutazilaism. However, the Mutazilas first came in to dominant position during the reign of Caliph Al Mamun who ascended the throne in 198 Hijri. Al Mamun was a scholarly person and during his tenure the education sector of Baghdad flourished but unfortunately the Caliph was under the influence of this Mutazila ideology.
He then appointed a Mutazila Scholar Ibnu Abu Dua as the Chief Judge who was very aggressive in establishing their ideology in the Muslim Ummah. Initially, Al Mamun was just adhering to this methodology but subsequently, around 216 Hijri, he was influenced by the Mutazila clerics to impose this ideology on every Imam and scholar in the Muslim world.
Any scholar who refused to concur with these ideologies were arrested and tortured. Many of the scholars flew from Baghdad and some were forced to accept this new law under pressure. Imam Hanbal was the one who stood up against this ideology, and did not bow down despite immense torture.
The Governor of Baghdad at that time was deputed with the task to obtain an acknowledgement from Imam Hanbal regarding Al Quran being a creation of Allah. Accordingly, he summoned Imam Hanbal and threatened him with dire consequences if he denied this supposed truth. However, Imam Hanbal flatly refused to acknowledge such deviant ideology.
The Caliph then ordered him to bring Imam Hanbal to his palace at Tarasus in chains. On the way to Tarasus the news of the death of Al Mamun reached and Imam Hanbal was sent back to jail in Baghdad. After his death, his brother Al Mutasim became the Caliph. He was not a scholar but he followed his brother’s instruction to patronize Mutazila creed and, in doing so, he was more oppressive. During his reign, Imam Hanbal was tortured so badly that he was on the verge of dying.
For almost two and a half years Imam Hanbal was in prison and tortured. During this tenure, Imam Hanbal was often brought to the Caliph’s palace in chains and he was asked to agree with the Mutazila creed but he remained steadfast. Such valiant and noble firmness for the sake of Islam uplifted his stature and the fame of Imam Hanbal spread around the entire Muslim Ummah like wildfire.
Gradually the followers and well-wishers of Imam Hanbal started to demonstrate resentment and frustration with the approach of the Caliph and ultimately Imam Hanbal was released from prison. Al Mutasim was Caliph for eight more years and after his death his son Wasik became Caliph. Al Wasik was in power for almost six years and followed the footsteps of his father and uncle. All these years Imam Hanbal was under surveillance and he was restrained from preaching and teaching in public. It is reported that it was during these days that Imam Hanbal compiled his most famous book Al Musnad.
After the death of Al Wasik, his brother Al Mutawakkil became the caliph in 242 Hijri. He was a true follower of As Auunah wal Jama and he brought an end to this Mutazila dominion. He allowed Imam Hanbal to resume his preaching in public and honoured him the way Imam Hanbal deserved.
Death of Imam Ahmad
Imam Ahmad Bin Hanbal died on Friday, 12 Rabi-ul-Awwa, 241 AH (857 AD approx.) at the age of seventy-seven in Baghdad, Iraq, after brief illness of 9 days. He is also buried in Baghdad (as reported by Abu Al-Hasan Al-Marwadhi).
As per sources, his Janazah Salah (Funeral Prayer) was attended by approx. one million people, among those, 60,000 were women. Historians also state that 20,000 Christians and Jews converted to Islam on that day of Imam’s funeral.