Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Hanbal, Abu `Abd
Allah al-Dhuhli al-Shaybani al-Marwazi al-Baghdadi (d. 241). Al-Dhahabi
says of him: "The true Shaykh of Islam and leader of the
Muslims in his time, the hadith master and proof of the Religion. He
took hadith from Hushaym, Ibrahim ibn Sa`d, Sufyan ibn `Uyayna, `Abbad
ibn `Abbad, Yahya ibn Abi Za’ida, and their layer. From him
narrated al-Bukhari [two hadiths in the Sahih], Muslim ,
Abu Dawud , Abu Zur`a, Mutayyan, `Abd Allah ibn Ahmad, Abu al-Qasim
al-Baghawi, and a huge array of scholars. His father was a soldier ű
one of those who called to Islam ű
and he died young." Al-Dhahabi continues:
`Abd Allah ibn Ahmad said: "I heard Abu
Zur`a [al-Razi] say: ‘Your father had memorized a million
hadiths, which I rehearsed with him according to topic.’"
Hanbal said: "I heard Abu `Abd Allah
say: ‘I memorized everything which I heard from Hushaym when
he was alive.’"
Ibrahim al-Harbi said: "I held Ahmad as
one for whom Allah had gathered up the combined knowledge of the
first and the last."
Harmala said: "I heard al-Shafi`i say:
‘I left Baghdad and did not leave behind me anyone more
virtuous (afdal), more learned (a`lam), more
knowledgeable (afqah) than Ahmad ibn Hanbal.’"
`Ali ibn al-Madini said: "Truly, Allah
reinforced this Religion with Abu Bakr al-Siddiq the day of the
Great Apostasy (al-Ridda), and He reinforced it with
Ahmad ibn Hanbal the day of the Inquisition (al-Mihna)."
Abu `Ubayd said: "The Science at its
peak is in the custody of four men, of whom Ahmad ibn Hanbal is
the most knowledgeable."
Ibn Ma`in said, as related by `Abbas [al-Duri]:
"They meant for me to be like Ahmad, but ű
by Allah! ű I shall
never in my life compare to him."
Muhammad ibn Hammad al-Taharani said: "I
heard Abu Thawr say: ‘Ahmad is more learned ű
or knowledgeable ű
Al-Dhahabi concludes: "Al-Bayhaqi wrote Abu
`Abd Allah’s biography (sîra) in one volume, so did Ibn
al-Jawzi, and also Shaykh al-Islam [`Abd Allah al-Harawi] al-Ansari
in a brief volume. He passed on to Allah’s good pleasure on the
day of Jum`a, the twelfth of Rabi` al-Awwal in the
year 241, at the age of seventy-seven. I have two of his
short-chained narrations (`awâlîh), and a licence (ijâza)
for the entire Musnad." Al-Dhahabi’s chapter on Imam
Ahmad in Siyar A`lam al-Nubala’ counts no less than 113
One of the misunderstandings prevalent among the
"Salafis" who misrepresent Imam Ahmad’s school today is
his position regarding kalâm or dialectic theology. It is
known that he was uncompromisingly opposed to kalâm as a
method, even if used as a means to defend the truth, preferring to
stick to the plain narration of textual proofs and abandoning all
recourse to dialectical or rational ones. Ibn al-Jawzi relates his
saying: "Do not sit with the people of kalâm, even if
they defend the Sunna." This attitude is at the root of his
disavowal of al-Muhasibi. It also explains the disaffection of later
Hanbalis towards Imam al-Ash`ari and his school, despite his
subsequent standing as the Imam of Sunni Muslims par excellence.
The reasons for this rift are now obsolete although the rift has
amplified beyond all recognizable shape, as it is evident, in
retrospect, that opposition to Ash`aris, for various reasons, came
out of a major misunderstanding of their actual contributions within
the Community, whether as individuals or as a whole.
There are several general reasons why the
Hanbali-mutakallim rift should be considered artificial and
obsolete. First, kalâm in its original form was an
innovation in Islam (bid`a) against which there was unanimous
opposition among Ahl al-Sunna. The first to use kalâm
were true innovators opposed to the Sunna, and in the language of
the early scholars kalâm was synonymous with the doctrines
of the Qadariyya, Murji’a, Jahmiyya, Jabriyya,
Rawâfid, and Mu`tazila and their multifarious
sub-sects. This is shown by the examples Ibn Qutayba gives of kalâm
and mutakalliműn in his book Mukhtalif al-Hadith,
none of which belongs to Ahl al-Sunna. Similarly the
adherents of kalâm brought up in the speech of al-Hasan al-Basri,
Ibn al-Mubarak, Ibn Rahuyah, Imam al-Shafi`i and the rest of the
pre-Hanbali scholars of hadith are the innovators of the
above-mentioned sects, not those who later opposed them using the
same methods of reasoning. The latter cannot be put in the same
category. Therefore the early blames of kalâm cannot be
applied to them in the same breath with the innovators.
Second, there is difference of opinion among the Salaf
on the possible use of kalâm to defend the Sunna,
notwithstanding Imam Ahmad’s position quoted above. One reason why
they disallowed it is wara`: because of extreme
scrupulousness against learning and practicing a discipline
initiated by the enemies of the Sunna. Thus they considered kalâm
reprehensible but not forbidden, as is clear from their statements.
For example, Ibn Abi Hatim narrated that al-Shafi`i said: "If I
wanted to publish books refuting every single opponent [of the Sunna]
I could easily do so, but kalâm is not for me, and I dislike
that anything of it be attributed to me." This shows that al-Shafi`i
left the door open for others to enter a field which he abstained
from entering out of strict Godwariness.
Third, kalâm is a difficult, delicate
science which demands a mind above the norm. The imams forbade it as
a sadd al-dharî`a or pre-empting measure. They rightly
foresaw that unless one possessed an adequate capacity to practice
it, one was courting disaster. This was the case with Ahmad’s
student Abu Talib, and other early Hanbalis who misinterpreted
Ahmad’s doctrinal positions as Bukhari himself stated. Bukhari,
Ahmad, and others of the Salaf thus experienced first hand
that one who played with kalâm could easily lapse into
heresy, innovation, or disbelief. This was made abundantly clear in
Imam Malik’s answer to the man who asked how Allah established
Himself over the Throne: "The establishment is known, the
‘how’ is inconceivable, and to ask about it is an
innovation!" Malik’s answer is the essence of kalâm
at the same time as it warns against the misuse of kalâm, as
observed by the late Dr. Abu al-Wafa’ al-Taftazani. Malik’s
reasoning is echoed by al-Shafi`i’s advice to his student al-Muzani:
"Take proofs from creation in order to know about the Creator,
and do not burden yourself with the knowledge of what your mind did
not reach." Similarly, Ibn Khuzayma and Ibn Abi Hatim admitted
their technical ignorance of the science of kalâm, at the
same time acknowledging its possible good use by qualified experts.
As for Ibn Qutayba, he regretted his kalâm days and
preferred to steer completely clear of it.
In conclusion, any careful reader of Islamic
intellectual history can see that if the Ash`ari scholars of kalâm
had not engaged and defeated the various theological and
philosophical sects on their own terrain, the silence of Ahl al-Sunna
might well have sealed their defeat at the hands of their opponents.
This was indicated by Taj al-Din al-Subki who spoke of the
obligatoriness of kalâm in certain specific circumstances,
as opposed to its superfluousness in other times. "The use of kalâm
in case of necessity is a legal obligation (wajib), and to
keep silence about kalâm in case other than necessity is a sunna."
The biographical notice on Imam Ahmad in the Reliance
of the Traveller reads: "Out of piety, Imam Ahmad never
gave a formal legal opinion (fatwa) while Shafi`i was in
Iraq, and when he later formulated his school of jurisprudence, he
mainly drew on explicit texts from the [Qur’an], hadith, and
scholarly consensus, with relatively little expansion from
analogical reasoning (qiyâs). He was probably the most
learned in the sciences of hadith of the four great Imams of Sacred
Law, and his students included many of the foremost scholars of
hadith. Abu Dawud said of him: ‘Ahmad’s gatherings were
gatherings of the afterlife: nothing of this world was mentioned.
Never once did I hear him mention this-worldly things.’ ... He
never once missed praying in the night, and used to recite the
entire [Qur’an] daily. He said, ‘I saw the Lord of Power in my
sleep, and said, "O Lord, what is the best act through which
those near to You draw nearer?" and He answered, "Through
[reciting] (sic) My word, O Ahmad." I asked, "With
understanding, or without?" and He answered, "With
understanding and without."’. . . Ahmad was imprisoned and
tortured for twenty-eight months under the Abbasid caliph al-Mu`tasim
in an effort to force him to publicly espouse the [Mu`tazila]
position that the Holy [Qur’an] was created, but the Imam bore up
unflinchingly under the persecution and refused to renounce the
belief of Ahl al-Sunna that the [Qur’an] is the uncreated
word of Allah, after which Allah delivered and vindicated him. When
Ahmad died in 241/855, he was accompanied to his resting place by a
funeral procession of eight hundred thousand men and sixty thousand
women, marking the departure of the last of the four great mujtahid
Imams of Islam."
Ibn al-Jawzi narrates from Bilal al-Khawass that
the latter met al-Khidr and asked him: "What do you say of al-Shafi`i?"
He said: "One of the Pillar-Saints (Awtâd)."
"Ahmad ibn Hanbal?" "He is a Siddîq."
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