So far in our four part series on the four great imams of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), we have seen each one of the imams have a special and enduring role in Islamic history. Imam Abu Hanifa was the trailblazer when it came to codifying fiqh and establishing the basics of how it is to be studied. Imam Malik upheld the importance of hadith in the field of fiqh through his landmark collection of hadith, al-Muwatta. And Imam al-Shafi’i revolutionized the study of fiqh by establishing the field of usul al-fiqh, the principles behind the study of fiqh.
For the last of the four great imams, Ahmad ibn Hanbal, his contribution went beyond just fiqh. Although he was one of the greatest jurists and scholars of hadith of his time, perhaps his greatest legacy was his courage to stand for the orthodox beliefs of Islam as they were imparted to Prophet Muhammad ﷺ in the face of persecution and imprisonment at the hands of the political authority. For this reason, Imam Ahmad’s legacy is far more than just the establishment of the Hanbali madhab, but also includes the preservation of core Islamic beliefs against political oppression.
Ahmad ibn Hanbal al-Shaybani was born in 778 in Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate. The relatively new city was fast becoming a center of scholarship of all forms. So as a child, Ahmad had numerous opportunities to learn and expand his intellectual horizons. Thus, by the time he was 10 years old, he had memorized the entire Quran and began studying the traditions of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, the hadith.
Like Imam Shafi’i, Imam Ahmad lost his father at a very young age. So in addition to spending his time studying fiqh and hadith under some of Baghdad’s greatest scholars, he also worked in a post office to help support his family. He was thus able to afford studying under one of Imam Abu Hanifa’s foremost students, Abu Yusuf. From Abu Yusuf, the young Ahmad learned the basics of fiqh such as ijtihad (intellectual decision making), and qiyas (analogical deduction).
After becoming proficient in the Hanafi Madhab, Ahmad ibn Hanbal began to study Hadith under some of the greatest Hadith scholars of Baghdad, including Haitham ibn Bishr. He was so eager to expand his knowledge of the sayings and doings of the Prophet ﷺ that he would regularly be waiting after fajr outside of the homes of his teachers, ready to start that day’s lesson. After studying in Baghdad, he went on to study in Makkah, Madinah, Yemen, and Syria. During this time, he even met Imam al-Shafi’i in Makkah. Al-Shafi’i helped the young Ahmad move beyond just memorization of hadith and fiqh, and be able to instead also understand the principles behind them. This collaboration between two of the four great imams clearly shows that the schools of Islamic law are not opposed to each other, but rather work hand in hand. In fact, when Imam al-Shafi’i left Baghdad, he was recorded as having said, “I am leaving Baghdad when there is none more pious, nor a greater jurist than Ahmad ibn Hanbal.”
Ahmad ibn Hanbal the Scholar
After studying with Imam al-Shafi’i, Imam Ahmad was able to begin to formulate his own legal opinions in fiqh. When Imam Ahmad was 40 years of age in the year 820, his mentor Imam al-Shafi’i passed away. At this point, Imam Ahmad began to teach hadith and fiqh to the people of Baghdad. Students would flock to his lectures, and he especially took care of the poorer ones, keeping in mind his own humble origins.
Despite being in the capital of the Muslim world, Baghdad, Imam Ahmad refused to be attracted to a life of luxury and wealth. He continued to live on very humble means, and rejected the numerous gifts that people would offer him, instead choosing to live on whatever small amounts of money he had. He especially insisted on not accepting gifts from political figures, ensuring his independence from the political authority which could affect his teachings.
Imam Ahmad was in Baghdad during the time of the Abbasid Caliph al-Ma’mun, who reigned from 813-833. Although al-Ma’mun was vital to the establishment of Baghdad as an intellectual center, he was heavily influenced by a group known as the Mu’tazila. Mu’tazili philosophy championed the role of rationalism in all aspects of life, including theology. Thus, instead of relying on the Quran and Sunnah to understand God, they relied on philosophical techniques first developed by the Ancient Greeks. Chief among their beliefs was that the Quran was a created book, as opposed to the un-created literal word of Allah.
Al-Ma’mun believed in the Mu’tazili line of thought, and sought to impose this new and dangerous belief system on everyone in his empire – including the scholars. While many scholars pretended to subscribe to Mu’tazili ideas in order to avoid persecution, Imam Ahmad refused to compromise his beliefs.
Al-Ma’mun instituted an inquisition known as the Mihna. Any scholars who refused to accept Mu’tazili ideas was severely persecuted and punished. Imam Ahmad, as the most famous scholar of Baghdad, was brought before al-Ma’mun and ordered to abandon his traditional Islamic beliefs about theology. When he refused, he was tortured and imprisoned. His treatment at the hands of the political authority was extremely severe. People who witnessed the torture commented that even an elephant could not have handled the treatment that Imam Ahmad was subject to.
Despite all of this, Imam Ahmad held to traditional Islamic beliefs, and thus served as an inspiration for Muslims throughout the empire. His trials set the precedent that Muslims do not give up their beliefs regardless what the political authority imposes on them. In the end, Imam Ahmad outlived al-Ma’mun and his successors until the Caliph al-Mutawakkil ascended in 847 and ended the Mihna. Imam Ahmad was again free to teach the people of Baghdad and write. During this time, he wrote his famous Musnad Ahmad ibn Hanbal, a collection of hadith that served as the basis of his school of legal thought, the Hanbali Madhab.
Imam Ahmad passed away in Baghdad in 855. His legacy was not restricted to the school of fiqh that he founded, nor the huge amount of hadith he compiled. Unlike the other three imams, he had a vital role in preserving the sanctity of Islamic beliefs in the face of intense political persecution. Although the Hanbali Madhab has historically been the smallest of the four, numerous great Muslim scholars throughout history were greatly influenced by Imam Ahmad and his thoughts, including Abdul Qadir al-Gilani, Ibn Taymiyyah, Ibn al-Qayyim, Ibn Kathir, and Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab.