24 September 2011
Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal [d.241H/855CE] 'alayhi al-rahmah wa'l-ridwan

Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Saffarini al-Hanbali [d.241H] relates in his Ghidha' al-albab li-sharh manzumat al-adab from Ibrahim ibn 'Abd Allah al-Qalanasi that Imam Ahmad said about the Sufis: "I don't know people better than them." Someone said to him: "They listen to music and they reach states of ecstasy." He said: "Do you prevent them from enjoying an hour with Allah?" [1]

Imam Ahmad's admiration of Sufis is borne out by the reports of his awe before Harith al-Muhasibi, although he expressed caution about the difficulty of the Sufi path for those unprepared to follow it, as it may not be for all people to follow the way of those about whom Allah instructed His Beloved Prophet Salla Allahu ta'ala 'alayhi wa Sallam:

"And keep yourself content with those who call their Lord early morning and evening, seeking His Countenance..." (18:28).

SHAMS AL-DIN 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 [22], Abu Dawud [254], Abu Zur'a, Mutayyan, 'Abd Allah ibn Ahmad, Abu al-Qasim al-Baghawi, and a huge array of scholars. His father was a soldier u one of those who called to Islam u and he died young." Shams al-Din 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 û by Allah! û I shall never in my life compare to him."

        Muhammad ibn Hammad al-Taharani said: "I heard Abu Thawr say: 'Ahmad is more learned û or knowledgeable û than al-Thawri.'"

Al-Dhahabi concludes: "Al-Bayhaqi wrote Abu 'Abd Allah's biography (si'ra) 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 AllahÂ’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 ('awaih), and a licence (ijaza) for the entire Musnad." Al-Dhahabi's chapter on Imam Ahmad in Siyar A'lam al-Nubala' counts no less than 113 pages.

One of the misunderstandings prevalent among the "Salafis" who misrepresent Imam Ahmad's school today is his position regarding kalam or dialectic theology. It is known that he was uncompromisingly opposed to kalam 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 kalam, 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 ABU AL-HASAN 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.

[1] al-Saffarini, Ghidha' al-albab li-sharh manzumat al-adab (Cairo: Matba`at al-Najah, 1324/1906) 1:120.

Further recommended reading :