Imām Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal

Imām Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal is one of the four Imams from the schools of Jurisprudence. He led the Ḥanbali school of Jurisprudence and is known as a theologian, jurist and muhaddith.

His Name, Background and Family

His full name is Abū ʿAbdillāh Aḥmad ibn Muḥammad ibn Ḥanbal Ash-Shaybānī born in Baghdad in 164AH (780). Imam Ahmed was pure Arab, belonging to the tribe of Shaybān through both parents in Iraq. He was still an infant when his father died at 30. Imam’s grandfather, Hanbal, was the governor of Sarkhas during the Umayyad period. His father Muhammad was a soldier Abbasid Army in Khurasan. When Ibn Ḥanbal was 15 he began to study, he travelled to the cities of Makkah, Madina, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. He made five Hajjs, three times on foot.

Ibn Ḥanbal led a life of asceticism and had many disciples. He had eight children, of whom two were well known and closely associated with his works Ṣālih (died 880) and ʿAbd Allāh (died 903).

His Journey to Seek Knowledge

Imām Aḥmad committed the Holy Quran to memory, after which he started learning Arabic as a language. Thereafter, he began acquainting himself with the knowledge of hadith and the lives of the Companions and the generation that followed them. Imām Aḥmad was extremely intelligent, modest, sensible and had an earnest desire for worshipping Allah. His favourite subjects were hadith and the lives of the Companions. He specialised in both these fields.

Imam Ahmed studied extensively in Baghdad, and later traveled to further his education. He started learning jurisprudence (Fiqh) under the celebrated Hanafi judge, Abu Yusuf. After finishing his studies with Abu Yusuf, ibn Hanbal began traveling through Iraq, Syria, and Arabia to collect hadiths, or traditions of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. Ibn al-Jawzi states that Imām Aḥmad had 414 Hadith masters whom he narrated from. With this knowledge, he became a leading authority on the hadith, leaving an immense encyclopaedia of hadith, al-Musnad. After several years of travel, he returned to Baghdad to study Islamic law under Imām Al-Shāfi’ī.

He also studied Hadith from Sufyan bin Uyanah in Mecca. In Yemen, he studied the narrations of the famous muhadith Abdur Razzaq bin Al-Hammam and obtained a certificate of authority.

Imām Al-Shāfi’ī said, ‘I left Baghdad and I did not leave behind me someone more pious, cautious (regarding doubtful matters), understanding (in fiqh) and knowledgeable than Ahmad.’

It was narrated he had memorised one million hadith and was known, not only for Fiqh and Hadith, but also exceptional Adab.

Imām Al-Shāfi’ī also said, ‘Imām Aḥmad is an authority in 8 fields – Hadith, Fiqh, Language, Quran, Faqr (poverty), Zuhd (asceticism), Wara (being cautious) and the Sunnah.’

He had a serious attitude to learning and teaching was coupled with exemplary humility and contentment. 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 ﷺ what the Prophet ﷺ 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.

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.

Imām Aḥmad’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 ﷺ 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 matter, he would consider their differing views as equally acceptable. He treated the tabieen, or successors to the Prophet’s companions in the same way.

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 or as a scribe.


The central fact of Ibn Ḥanbal’s life is the suffering to which he was subjected during the inquisition, known as al-miḥnah, ordered by the caliph al-Maʾmūn. His stance was that such doctrinal debates were raised neither by the Companionsra, nor by their followers (the latter known as the tabi‘een). Accordingly, he believed that one should never take part in such debates and whatever they believed in should suffice for us too, but if one persisted, then he would inculcate that they firmly believe in the Quran being uncreated, for calling it a creation would be interpolating religion.

The inquisition was inaugurated in 833, when the Caliph made obligatory upon all Muslims the belief that the Qurʾān was created, a doctrine of the Muʿtazilites, a rationalist Islāmic school that claimed that reason was equal to revelation as a means to religious truth. The Caliph had already made public profession of this belief in 827.

At the risk of his life, Ibn Ḥanbal refused to subscribe to the Muʿtazilī doctrine. He was put in chains, beaten, and imprisoned for about two years. After his release he did not resume his lectures until the inquisition was publicly proclaimed at an end. Some orthodox theologians, to survive the ordeal, had recanted, and later claimed the privilege of taqiyah (dissimulation) as a justification for their behaviour. This is a dispensation granted in the Qurʾān to those who wish to avail themselves of it when forced to profess a false faith, while denying it in their hearts. Other theologians, following the example of Ibn Ḥanbal, refused to repudiate their beliefs.

In 833 Ibn Ḥanbal and another theologian, Muḥammad ibn Nūḥ, who had also refused to recant, were cited to appear for trial before Caliph al-Maʾmūn, who was in Tarsus (now in modern Turkey) at the time. They were sent off in chains from Baghdad; but shortly after beginning their journey, the Caliph died, and on their trip back to the capital, Ibn Nūḥ died.

Ibn Ḥanbal was ordered to appear before the new caliph, al-Muʿtaṣim. He was on trial for three days, and on the third day, after the learned men disputed with him, there followed a private conference with the Caliph who asked Ibn Ḥanbal to yield at least a little so that he might grant him his freedom. Ibn Ḥanbal made the same reply he had been making from the beginning of the inquisition; he would yield when given some ground for modifying his faith derived from the sources he regarded as authoritative, namely the Qurʾān and the Traditions of Muḥammad. Losing patience, the Caliph ordered that he be taken away and flogged. Throughout the flogging the Caliph persisted in his attempts to obtain a recantation, but to no avail. Ibn Ḥanbal’s unflinching spirit was beginning to have its effect upon the Caliph; but the latter’s advisers warned that if he desisted from punishing him, he would be accused of having opposed the doctrine of his predecessor al-Maʾmūn, and the victory of Ibn Ḥanbal would have dire consequences on the reign of the caliphs. But the Caliph’s treatment of Ibn Ḥanbal had to be suspended, nevertheless, because of the mounting anger of the populace gathering outside the palace and preparing to attack it. Ibn Ḥanbal is reported to have been beaten by 150 floggers, each in turn striking him twice and moving aside. The scars from his wounds remained with him to the end of his life.

The inquisition continued under the next caliph, al-Wāthiq, but Ibn Ḥanbal was no longer molested, in spite of attempts on the part of his opponents to persuade the Caliph to persecute him. The new caliph, like his predecessor, was most likely influenced by the threat of a popular uprising should he lay violent hands on a man popularly held to be a saint. The momentum of the inquisition carried it two years into the reign of al-Mutawakkil, who finally put an end to it in 848.

Ibn Ḥanbal earned the greatest reputation of all the persons involved in the inquisition and the everlasting gratitude of the Muslim people. He is credited with having held his ground in the face of all odds, saving Muslims from becoming unbelievers. At his funeral the procession was estimated at more than 800,000 mourners.

Hanbali school

At the age of 40, he founded a school. This was after 204 AH when his teacher, Imām Al-Shāfi’ī had passed away. Imām Aḥmad’s taqwa, piety and good morals also had gained recognition. A large number of Hadith students was affiliated with his madrasah. Hundreds of students were always present with inkpots and pens, ready to take notes.

A large collection of Imām Aḥmad’s fiqh-related views were inspired by his knowledge of hadith and the views of the Companions.

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 Imām Aḥmad 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 Imām Aḥmad 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 mainstay of Imām Aḥmad’s fiqh may be summed up as follows.

  1. Religious text, meaning the Quran and the hadith. When Imām Aḥmad 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 ﷺ.
  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 Imām Al-Shāfi’ī who would weigh up the different views and come out in preference of one. Imām Aḥmad considers analogy to be of lesser value than the view of a companion of the Prophet ﷺ.
  4. Imām Aḥmad 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 Imām Aḥmad 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.
  6. Unanimity of scholars, which is accepted as a main source of legislation by all schools of thought. However, Imām Aḥmad 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, Imām Aḥmad 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.

Musnad Imām Aḥmad

His monumental service to hadith is preserved in the form of his magnum opus, Al-Musnad. The book contains between 30,000 to 40,000 ahadith and narrations of Companionsra. His book was considered a foundation for future muhadithin.

Imam Bukhari, Imam Muslim and other acclaimed muhadithin referred to this book while preparing their compilations, and in selecting authentic ahadith, they got considerable help from it.

Instead of focusing on the subject-matter, the Musnad lists ahadith in order of narrator. For example, first are the ahadith narrated by Hazrat Abu Bakrra, followed by ahadith narrated by Hazrat Umarra, then by Hazrat Uthmanra, and in this manner, all the Companions’ra narrations have been compiled.

No doubt, there are some ahadith that are weak in the Musnad, but scholars have elucidated that there are no fabricated traditions in the Musnad. Imām Aḥmad’s belief was that after the Quran and Sunnah [practices of the prophet ﷺ], hadith is one of the sources of Shariah, regardless of whether the traditions are authentic, weak, have narrators omitted in the chain of narrators or have a continuous chain of narrators.

He considered the sayings of the Companionsra as an authority and would cater for the views of the tabi‘een [those that followed the Companionsra]. When necessary, albeit rarely, he would rely on qiyas [deductive analogy], istislah [seeking the best public interest] and istiswab [seeking consultation]. He did not believe in the lawfulness of any other ijma‘ [concencus] other than the consensus of the Companionsra. In his opinion, the concept of a general consensus was incorrect as there could have been opponents among them who the people were not aware of.

The Hanbali School is the smallest of the four schools and at times nearly became obsolete, but great scholars like Abdul Qadir al Jilani and Ibn Taymiyyah kept the school alive. Many of those around the peninsular follow or at lesast base view on the Hanbali school.

Notable Teachers

  • Yaqub Ibn Ibrahim Al-Ansari (better known as Abu Yusuf)
  • Imām Al-Shāfi’ī
  • 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

Notable Students

  • 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

Notable works

  • Musnad of Imām Aḥmad ibn Hanbal – 30000 hadith
  • Usool as-Sunnah : “Foundations of the Prophetic Tradition (in Belief)”
  • asSunnah : “The Prophet Tradition (in Belief)”
  • Kitab al-`Ilal wa Ma‘rifat al-Rijal: “The Book of Narrations Containing Hidden Flaws and of Knowledge of the Men (of Hadeeth)” Riyad: Al-Maktabah al-Islamiyyah
  • Kitab al-Manasik: “The Book of the Rites of Hajj”
  • Kitab al-Zuhd: “The Book of Abstinence” ed. Muhammad Zaghlul, Beirut: Dar al-Kitab al-‘Arabi, 1994
  • Kitab al-Iman: “The Book of Faith”
  • Kitab al-Masa’il “Issues in Fiqh”
  • Kitab al-Ashribah: “The Book of Drinks”
  • Kitab al-Fada’il Sahaba: “Virtues of the Companions”
  • Kitab Tha’ah al-Rasul : “The Book of Obedience to the Messenger”
  • Kitab Mansukh: “The Book of Abrogation”
  • Kitab al-Fara’id: “The Book of Obligatory Duties”
  • Kitab al-Radd `ala al-Zanadiqa wa’l-Jahmiyya “Refutations of the Heretics and the Jahmites” (Cairo: 1973)
  • Tafsir : “Exegesis”


Imam Ahmed ibn Hanbal passed away on Friday, 12 Rabi-ul-awwal, 241 AH/ 2 August, 855 at the age of 74–75 in Baghdad, Iraq. Historians relate that his funeral was attended by 800,000 men and 60,000 women and that 20,000 Christians and Jews converted to Islam on that day.

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