The Grand Durbar of the greatest of the Abbaside Caliphs, Mamun ar-Rashid, at Tarsus, was packed to its capacity. A frail bodied person, with a resolute look and a calm countenance, was carried forward by the guards, through a long row of distinguished courtiers, officials, and religious scholars. The person was Ahmad ibn Hanbal who had been summoned by the Caliph, an exponent of the Mutazellite doctrine of the creation of Quran.
The Caliph asked him if he accepted the Mutazellite doctrine about the creation of Quran.
“No”, replied Ahmad ibn Hanbal firmly, “The Quran is the word of God. How can it be treated as a creation?”
The Caliph tried to argue with Ahmad bin Hanbal supported by several religious scholars but the Imam was adamant and refused to change his views, which were in conformity with the faith of the Prophet and his Companions. He was, therefore, put behind the bars.
Imam Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Hanbal, the founder of the Hanbali School of Muslim jurisprudence, is one of the most vigorous personalities of Islam, which profoundly influenced both the historical development and modern revival. The celebrated theologian, jurist, and traditionist, Ahmad ibn Hanbal, was “through his disciple Ibn Taimiya, the distant progenitor of Wahabism. He inspired also in certain degree the conservative reform movement of the Salafiyya” (Encyclopaedia of Islam).
Born at Baghdad on the 1st of Rabi-ul-Awwal, 164 A.H. (December 780 A.C.) Ahmad ibn Hanbal was an Arab, belonging to Bani Shayban of Rabia, who had played an important role in the Muslim conquest of Iraq and Khorasan. His family first resided at Basra. His grandfather Hanbal ibn Hilal, Governor of Sarakhs, under the Omayyads, had his headquarters at Mery. Ahmad’s father Muhammad ibn Hanbal, who was employed in the Imperial Army in Khorasan, later moved to Baghdad, where he died three years later.
Ahmad who had become an orphan at a very early age inherited a family estate of modest income. He studied jurisprudence, Tradition, and lexicography in Baghdad. There he attended the lectures of Qazi Abu Yusuf. His principal teacher was Sufyan bin Uyayna, the greatest authority of School of Hejaz. Later, he was much influenced by Imam Shafii and became his disciple. From 795 A.C., he devoted himself to the study of Tradition and made frequent visits to Iran, Khorasan, Hejaz, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and even to Maghrib in quest of authentic Traditions of the Prophet. He made five pilgrimages to the holy cities.
According to Imam Shafii, who taught Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) to Ahmad ibn Hanbal, “the latter was the most learned man he had come across in Baghdad.“
The way Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal withstood the trials and tribulations of the Abbaside Caliphs for 15 years on account of his opposition to the officially supported Mutazillite doctrine of the creation of Quran, is a living tribute to Imam’s high character and indomitable will which has immortalized him as one of the greatest men of all times.
The Abbaside Caliph, Mamoon ar-Rashid, was, in his last days, much influenced by the rationalist doctrines of Mutazillites, including that of the creation of Quran, and gave an official support to it. The distinguished religious leaders and divines, one after another, succumbed to the views of the Caliph. It fell to the lot of Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal to oppose this doctrine vigorously and suffer for it, which immensely added to his popularity and immortalized him as one of the greatest exponents of the true faith.
The Abbaside Caliph, Mamoon ar-Rashid died shortly after the imprisonment of Imam Ahmad. He was succeeded by Al-Mutasim, who summoned the Imam and asked the same question about the creation of Quran. Still strongly refusing to accept this Mutazillite doctrine, he was severely flogged and thrown into prison. He was, however, allowed to return home after two years. During the reign of the succeeding Abbaside Caliph, Wasiq, he was not permitted to preach his faith and was compelled to live in retirement. All these hardships failed to detract him from the righteous path.
The sufferings of the Imam ended when Al Mutawakkil became the Caliph and returned to the old traditional faith. The Imam was invited and enthusiastically welcomed by the Caliph who requested him to give lessons on Traditions to the young Abbaside Prince, al-Mutazz, But the Imam declined this offer on account of his old age and failing health. He returned to Baghdad without seeing the Caliph and died at the age of 75 in Rabi-ul-Awwal of 241 A.H. (July 855 A.C.). He was buried in the Martyrs’ cemetery, near the Harb gate of Baghdad. “His funeral was attended by millions of mourners and his tomb was the scene of demonstrations of such ardent devotion that the cemetery had to be guarded by the civil authorities and his tomb became the most frequented place of pilgrimage in Baghdad” (Encyclopaedia of Islam).
Imam Ahmad laid greater emphasis on Traditions. His monumental work is Musnad, an encyclopedia containing 28,000 to 29,000 Traditions of the Prophet in which the Traditions are not classified according to the subject as in the Sahihs of Muslim and Bukhari, but under the name of the first reporter. His other notable works are: “Kitab-us-Salaat” (Book on Prayer); “Ar-radd alalZindika” (a treatise in refutation of Mutazillites, which he wrote in prison); and “Kitab-us-Sunnah” (Book in which he expounds his creed).
Though the fundamental purpose of the Imam’s teaching may be seen as a reaction against the codification of Fiqh, his disciples collected and systematized his replies to questions which gave birth to the Hanbali Fiqh, the fourth School of Muslim jurisprudence.
The Hanbali School which was exposed throughout its history to numerous and powerful opponents came into prominence under the teachings of its greatest exponent, Imam ibn Taimiya, who denounced the veneration of saints and worshipping of tombs. Later, it was further renovated by the Saudi Arabian reformer, Abdul Wahab, who greatly popularised it in Saudi Arabia.