Although Abu ‘Abdullah Ahmad Ibn Hanbal Al Shaybani became both a true shaikh of Islam and a master of hadith, his fame endured because of his tireless efforts to create the conservative Hanbali school of thought.
Followed primarily in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, parts of the UAE as well as among minority communities in Iraq and Syria, Hanbali jurisprudence distinguished itself on questions related to creed as it adopted a puritanical approach that eventually gave birth to Salafi movements.
Ibn Hanbal’s difficult life pushed him towards scholarship, and he came up with a unique “Musnad”, one of the great encyclopaedias of hadiths that contained more than thirty thousand of the truest sayings attributed to the Prophet (PBUH). His other works, which include the “Kitab Al Salah”, on the discipline of prayers, and the “Kitab Al Sunnah”, on matters of behaviour, are considered peerless.
Yet, what distinguished Hanbali dogma from the other schools of Sunni Islam was its strong emphasis on verifying the prophetic traditions and relying on them, whereas Shafi‘i, Hanafi and Maleki schools considered such traditions less valuable.
In his teachings, Ibn Hanbal rejected the possibility of ijma‘ (consensus) because, over time, gaps were naturally created among believers who could not possibly refer back to original claims.
The only consensus that Muslims could possibly accept, according to Ibn Hanbal, was one of those among the first generation of Muslims. As discussed below, some of his students introduced emendations to this rationale, but he was equally opposed to qiyas (analogical reasoning).
To say that Ibn Hanbal applied strict standards would indeed be an understatement — this partly explains why the school was the smallest among the four Sunni theological affiliates. Still, the courageous jurist stood up for orthodox beliefs in the face of persecution and imprisonment at the hands of oppressive rulers, which earned him a special place among those who fought for religious liberties.
Life and times
Ibn Hanbal was born in 778 in Baghdad, the capital of the ‘Abbasid Caliphate. His parents, though, hailed from Merv in present Turkmenistan.
At the dawn of a period that encouraged creativity and scholarship, Ahmad learnt from true masters and expanded his intellectual horizons. By the time he was 10, he had memorised the Quran and launched into a lifelong study of the traditions attributed to Prophet Mohammad (PBUH).
It was in Baghdad that Ibn Hanbal met the Imam Al Shafi‘i, who taught him Islamic fiqh (jurisprudence) and its fundamentals. The precocious young man valued the exposure to the original texts that defined Islam.
Whether his association with Shafi‘i was the cause of his puritanical preferences is impossible to know, although both men opposed innovations, Ibn Hanbal more than his teacher.
Because his father passed away when he was still young, Ibn Hanbal had to find a way to pay for his education under Abu Yousuf, who was one of Imam Abu Hanifa’s foremost students.
So, he worked at a post office even as he mastered ijtihad (independent reasoning) and qiyas, and became proficient in the Hanafi School. Several years later, he travelled from Baghdad to Makkah, and visited Yemen and Syria.
He rekindled ties with Imam Al Shafi‘i in Makkah, who quickly took a liking to him and helped the young man hone his skills, focusing on the key principles.
In fact, the resulting collaboration — between two of the four great imams who left their marks on Muslim jurisprudence — highlighted how close the four schools of law were, despite cultural differences.
Al Shafi‘i and Ibn Hanbal became so close that the elder allegedly confided that he was “leaving Baghdad when there was none more pious, nor a greater jurist than Ahmad Ibn Hanbal”.
After Al Shafi‘i passed away in 820, the young scholar focused on hadith and usul al-fiqh as he gained a fairly large following. Remarkably, Ibn Hanbal seldom forgot his humble origins and despite the many opportunities to enrich himself, he refused to be lured by wealth.
Historians have written that he continued to lead an austere lifestyle, rejected gifts offered him and chose to live on the little money he earned from teaching. Of special importance was his refusal to accept largesse from political figures, a common phenomenon at the time, to ensure his independence.
The strength of his faith was severely tested under the rulership of Al Ma’mum and Al Mu‘tasim, when he was subjected to an “inquisition court”.
Even if Baghdad was far more relaxed under the ‘Abbasids than under the ‘Ummayads, the Caliph Al Ma’mun, who reigned from 813 to 833, was under the influence of Mu‘tazilah philosophy.
In fact, Baghdad became the Arab world’s premier intellectual centre through the Mu‘tazilah-championed rationalism in all aspects of life, including theology.
Critics concluded that rather than relying on the scriptures to understand God, the Mu‘tazilah depended on philosophy and various interpretations first developed by the ancient Greeks to live their faith. The most controversial belief was the notion that the Quran was a created book, as opposed to being the literal word of God as revealed to the Prophet (PBUH).
This line of thought appealed to the modernising Caliph who, in a moment of hubris, sought to impose it throughout the realm. While ordinary believers were loath to oppose their sovereign, the experts in Islamic law frowned on such a diktat, even if few publicly spoke against Al Ma’mum.
Ibn Hanbal refused to compromise and rejected Mu‘tazilah interpretations, leading to an inquisition that became known as the Mihnah.
He was arrested in 814-815 and brought in chains before the ruler. When he refused to deviate from his traditional Islamic views on theology, he was severely punished and tortured.
Resolute in his determination as he lingered in prison, the imam stood his ground and survived.
Caliph Al Mutawakkil ascended the throne in 847 and ended the Mihnah since he did not believe in the doctrine of the creation of the Quran.
Within days, Ibn Hanbal was released from prison. As the new ruler distanced himself from his predecessor’s excesses, Ibn Hanbal resumed his scholarly work and it was at this time that the ‘alim penned his famous collection of hadiths. His unswerving faithfulness to traditions became known far and wide. The imam passed away in Baghdad in 855.
The Hanbali school focused on the learned man’s mastery of the sciences of the Quran. Ibn Hanbal authored works in exegesis (tafsir), science of abrogation (al-Nasikh wal-Mansukh), as well as the different modes recitations (Qira’at).
His knowledge of Arabic was quite advanced and he preferred specific recitations that avoided the narration of the Hamzah due to the latter’s emphasis on elongated vowels. He became known as the Imam Ahl Al Sunnah, a celebrated theologian with no peers in the field of orthodox doctrine.
Arab scholars likened him to Abu Bakr, as the lone champion of Islam during the wars of apostasy. Unlike Abu Bakr, however, Ibn Hanbal excelled in zuhd (material and spiritual asceticism) — he lived a very simple life detached from worldly pleasures and penned “Kitab Al Zuhd” to define how pious Muslims should live.
Abu Dawud, the famous compiler of “Sunan” (another collection of hadiths), observed that sessions with Ibn Hanbal were devoted to the hereafter, for he would seldom concentrate on earthly life.
In his juridical opinions and verdicts, which he extrapolated from the Sharia, the imam was always cautious. For the cleric, all sources worthy to thus be identified were the divine ones, including the Quran and the Sunnah.
Naturally, he gave credit to decrees issued by the Companions of the Prophet (PBUH), especially when no textual evidence could be found in the Scriptures, because he concluded that these honourable men implemented the interpretations of the Prophet (PBUH).
That is why Ibn Hanbal recognised their advice to the Ummah. However, he drew the line at this first generation because he believed that their successors, while well intentioned, could not be compared to the rightly guided caliphs.
Later scholars, Ibn Hanbal deduced, did not benefit from what the Companions enjoyed, which was why scholarly opinion reached through analogical deduction was secondary to what this privileged group witnessed and imparted.
Of course, in those instances when controversies existed and where the Companions offered two or more views, he opted for the opinion supported by the divine text. Hadiths were used as necessary — albeit with utmost care, given man’s fallibility — after these original sources were exhausted.
Although difficult to summarise in a short essay, the following key items stood out in Hanbali doctrine:
First, a believer must accept God’s description of himself in the Quran, even if he must overlook any resemblance(s) between the Creator and the creation.
Second, he must vigorously reject negative theology as well as allegorical exegesis, something that Jahmites, Mu‘tazilahs and the Kullabites (who were later known as the Asha’irites) used to justify their philosophical approach to God.
Third, God spoke with words and letters and that it was incumbent on the believer to accept every word and letter in the scriptures.
Fourth, a Hanbali Muslim believes that God literally heard and saw, that he had two hands with which he created Adam, and that he had a face.
Fifth, God ascended to the throne after creating the Universe — heavens and the Earth — in six days.
Sixth, God is high above and distinct from his creations.
Seventh, God is all-knowing, wise and powerful — that he has his own will and does what he likes based on wisdom. Whatever God has written and decreed upon his creation occurred and that nothing happened without his knowledge or approval.
Eighth, God is pleased when people obey him and displeased when they disobey him. Still, God is merciful, and if he wishes to forgive instead of punishing those who strayed, he will do so. According to Hanbali teachings, a Muslim could not be declared a disbeliever (kafir) on account of his sins, nor be excluded from the community for his actions if he repents.
Ninth, miracles that occurred at the hands of pious Muslims are a favour from God.
Tenth, discussions on the differences between the Companions are prohibited, for the honour of Companionship with the Prophet (PBUH) is a virtue that has ranked them higher than the entire Muslim Ummah until the end of time.
Legacy to Arabs and Muslims
As one of four men who founded schools of thought in Sharia that transformed dogma into concrete regulations, Ibn Hanbal’s legacy is immense.
Of course, Hanbali Islam is not restricted to the school of fiqh that he founded, nor the huge number of hadiths he compiled.
Unlike the other three imams, what distinguished Ibn Hanbal was the vital role he played in preserving the sanctity of Islamic beliefs in the face of intense political persecution.
Although the Hanbali school remained the smallest of the four schools in terms of its adherents, great Muslim scholars throughout history were influenced by Ibn Hanbal and his thoughts, including Abdul Qadir Al Gilani, Ibn Taymiyyah, Ibn Al Qayyim, Ibn Kathir, and Mohammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab.
Dr Joseph A. Kéchichian is the author of the forthcoming “‘Iffat Al Thunayan: An Arabian Queen”, London: Sussex Academic Press, 2015.
This article is the 29th of a series on Muslim thinkers who greatly influenced Arab societies across the centuries.