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7. The Madhhab of Imam Ahmad

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم وصلى الله على سيدنا محمد وعلى ءاله وصحبه أجمعين وسلّم

Title: The Madhhab of Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal

Author: Abdalhakim Andersson and Khalifa Diakite

Publication date: 16/03/2013

Lecture 7: The Madhhab of Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم وصلى الله على سيدنا محمد وعلى ءاله وصحبه أجمعين

السلام عليكم

Welcome to the Muslim History Programme of the MFAS. This is the seventh of 12 sessions which make up the second module, The Madhhabs of Islam. The lecture will last approximately 40 minutes during which time you should make a written note of any questions that may occur to you for clarification after the lecture.

1. Introduction

Today’s topic concerns the last of the four madhhabs that have remained until our own time, that of Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal. It was the last of the four madhhabs to develop, but their developments were, of course, closely related to each other. Imam Ahmad was a direct student of Imam ash-Shafi’i, who in turn was a direct student of both Imam Malik and Muhammad ibn al-Hasan ash-Shaybani, one of the main transmitters of the fiqh of Abu Hanifa. There are, however, marked differences between Imam Ahmad and the other imams, some of which we will look at during this lecture. For most of its history the Hanbali madhhab has been the smallest of the four madhhabs in terms of followers, but its significance for the intellectual as well as political history of Islam should not be underestimated. Before entering the arena of politics, however, our first point of departure is the early life of the Imam and the education that shaped his later career. 

2. Early life and education

Introducing Ahmad ibn Hanbal, Shaykh Abdalhaqq Bewley writes:

He was born in Baghdad in Rabi‘ al-Awwal 164AH, half a generation after Imam ash-Shafi‘i, making him, historically speaking, the last of our four imams. This fact and the fact that he was born in Baghdad have a considerable bearing on the course his life and studies were to take. By the time Imam Ahmad came into the world and was brought up in Baghdad, the Abbasid caliphate was thoroughly established and Baghdad had become a truly cosmopolitan imperial capital, a world away from the Madinan environment in which Islam had originally been established. By Imam Ahmad’s time Persian elements had come to dominate Arab elements and the sophistication of Persian civilisation was in the ascendance in general throughout the Muslim world. The cities of Islam were inundated with differing nations and races, and texts of all kinds were being translated from Persian, Syriac, Greek, Latin and other languages into Arabic. The result of this was that the more or less homogeneous cultural environment of early Islam had become fragmented as all these different influences became part and parcel of the Islamic world. Add to this the clash of earlier religious traditions together with the attempts of their adherents to mould Islam towards their own world views and the result was an ambience, both religious and physical, which would have been all but unrecognisable to the first generations of Muslims.1 

Shaykh Abdalhaqq continues:

This was what confronted Ahmad ibn Hanbal as he grew up in the Abbasid capital and, as a pure-hearted, intelligent, deeply pious youth, he was left with the quandary of how, in the light of all the sophisticated deviation he was facing, he could regain something of the light, clarity and simplicity of the formative early days of Islam. The way he went about achieving his aim has already been indicated in the quotation from at-Tabari – he became a muhaddith. In order to get as complete and detailed a picture as possible of the life of the first community he devoted himself to accumulating the maximum possible number of reports from that time, not only from the Prophet @ himself but also from the Companions, may Allah be pleased with all of them. 

So from very early in his life Imam Ahmad chose the men of hadith and their method and dedicated himself to it, to the extent that it certainly appeared that he had taken the path of the hadith scholars rather than that of those who combined fiqh with hadith. In his search for hadith, Imam Ahmad travelled widely throughout the heartlands of Islam and may have been the first muhaddith to collect the hadith of every region of the Muslim world and record them. Another thing which marked him out was his use of the pen in his compilation of hadith. In spite of his well known prodigious memory Imam Ahmad wrote down the hadith he collected. The end result of all this hadith recording which started when he was sixteen years old and continued through much of his life was his great Musnad which contains almost thirty thousand hadith.2 

Before further examining the political, social and scholarly context in which Imam Ahmad lived, we will mention some of the teachers and students that were in his circles. He began seeking in-depth knowledge in year 179, at the age of fifteen, the same year as Imam Malik ibn Anas passed away. Some of his teachers included Muhammad ibn Idris ash-Shafi’i, ‘Abd ar-Razzaq, Sufyan ibn ‘Uyayna, Abu Nu’aym and many other leading scholars of his time. Regarding the discussion as to whether Imam Ahmad was a man of hadith as well a man of fiqh, we can at least note that he studied with great scholars of both disciplines. Among the ones he took hadith from were Qutayba ibn Sa’id, ‘Ali ibn al-Madîni, Abu Bakr ibn Abi Shayba, Harun ibn Ma’ruf and other contemporaries. The number of men he narrated from in his great hadith compilation, the Musnad, amounts to around 280. 

Naturally, Imam Ahmad had numerous students and his reputation, particularly as a master of hadith, soon became widespread. Those who narrated hadith from him are also amongst the most famous, including al-Bukhari, Muslim, Abu Dawud, an-Nasa’i and at-Tirmidhi. We might also add that Ibn Majah, the compiler of the sixth of the famous six collections, narrated from another man who in turn related from Imam Ahmad. Moreover, his teachers, ’Abd ar-Razzaq, al-Hasan ibn Musa al-Ashyab and Abu ‘Abdillah ash-Shafi’i all narrated from him.

Imam Ahmad became known for his scrupulousness regarding hadith, which his Musnad makes clear. It is narrated by his son, ‘Abdullah, from Abu Zur’a that Imam Ahmad memorised one million hadiths and, according to adh-Dhahabi, it represents an accurate record of his vast capacity for memorisation. Regarding his trustworthiness, it is narrated that Imam ash-Shafi’i said to him, “Abu ‘Abdillah, if the hadith is sahih with you, tell us so we can refer to it. You are most knowledgeable about the sahih reports (akhbar). Tell me, so I can go to it, whether it is from Kufa, Basra or Syria.” 

It was, however, not only the great mastery of hadith that he was famous for, he was also a scholar of fiqh. As Ibn Wâra said, “Ahmad was a man of fiqh, memorisation and knowledge (ma’rifa).” Likewise, Imam Nasa’i said, “Imam Ahmad gathered the knowledge of hadith, fiqh, scrupulousness, taqwa, doing-without (zuhd) and steadfastness (sabr).” 

Nevertheless, it is the focus on hadith that both Imam Ahmad and his followers became known for. Shaykh Abdalhaqq Bewley writes regarding the difference between Imam Ahmad and the other imams: 

The three earlier imams all definitely represented a particular methodology: Imam Abu Hanifah the Iraqi school of opinion; Imam Malik the Madinan school of direct transmission; and Imam ash-Shafi‘i his own system based on textual analysis. Imam Ahmad, on the other hand, cannot be said to have devised a particular methodology of fiqh. The great historian of Islam, at-Tabari, for instance, did not even include the madhhab of Imam Ahmad when discussing the early fuqaha. He said of him: “He was a man of hadith not a man of fiqh.”

Qadi ‘Iyad states in his great book Tartib al-Madarik: “He was less than an imam in fiqh although he was brilliant in investigation of its sources.” And there were many other great ‘ulama who did not consider him the founder of a school of fiqh. Indeed he only became an imam in fiqh after his death and that was because some of his students collected together his statements, fatwas and opinions, forming a legal corpus which was posthumously ascribed to him. Sometimes the transmissions from him varied considerably and sometimes they agreed.3

Shaykh Abdalhaqq further states:

All in all then it must be said that from very early times there has been much discussion about whether Imam Ahmad can really be said to have been the founder of a separate madhhab. It is certainly clear that he was in a different category to the other three, who all represented very specific methodologies in their implementation of the Book and Sunnah. He was definitely one of a kind in terms of the time and place where he lived and ploughed his own furrow in his determination to cleave as closely as he possibly could to the path followed by the first community in Madinah, remaining absolutely orthodox in his views while at the same time being somewhat at odds with the prevailing ethos surrounding him. This is significant in the light of some of those who were to adopt him as their imam in fiqh later on, several of whom were people who found themselves at odds with the authorities of their own time and found in Imam Ahmad a way of remaining firmly within the bounds of orthodox Muslim belief and practice while at the same time differentiating themselves from the power structure of their time.4 

In order to understand the scholarship of Imam Ahmad and the madhhab that developed in his name, it is important to look at the political and social context in which he lived and worked. Before discussing his legal methodology and scholarly considerations, we will therefore look at the great changes that occurred in ‘Abbasid society during the second and third century after Hijra. His historical role and importance for the preservation of orthodoxy at this crucial point might be indicated by the words of al-Muzani, who said:

In the day of the mihna (inquisition), there was Ahmad ibn Hanbal. In the day of ridda (apostasy), there was Abu Bakr. In the day of Saqifa, there was ‘Umar. In the day of the house, there was ‘Uthman. In the day of the Camel and Siffin, there was ‘Ali.

3. Political and social context

Imam Ahmad lived during one of the most flourishing epochs of political power, civilisation and culture. He lived under eight ‘Abbasid caliphs, from al-Mahdi to al-Mutawakkil. He witnessed the peak of the ‘Abbasid caliphate, its cultural achievements and the last period of strong caliphal power until the Osmanlis some centuries later. It was, however, far from a peaceful and uncomplicated era. Real political authority began to transfer into the hands of Persian governors and local rulers, even if the power appeared to remain among the caliphs. Sometimes the growing threat of the Persian and Turkish powers, which had initially helped the ‘Abbasid dynasty to overthrow the Umayyads, caused the caliphs to start ordering executions. Thus al-Mansur ordered the execution of Abu Muslim al-Khurasani, Harun ar-Rashid ordered the execution of al-Baramika and al-Ma’mun ordered al-Fadl ibn Sahl to be killed. It was a time of numerous Shi’a rebellions against the ‘Abbasid caliphate, particularly in the time of Harun ar-Rashid and al-Mutawakkil. No regions were spared from fitna, fighting and rebellion, but the regions of Persia and Iraq were the most exposed to Shi’a uprisings. It was also the time of the beginning of the Isma’ili movement and their propaganda, which later led to the establishment of the Fatimid dynasty of North Africa. 

As we examined in the course on the history of the caliphs, social life in the ‘Abbasid period was shaped by the mixing of people from a wide variety of origins and cultures. In fact, at the beginning of the ‘Abbasid caliphate, only around five percent of the population are said to have been Muslims, the other ninety-five percent belonging to other religions and cultures. It was a period of economic prosperity, which can be seen in the remnants of the great architecture of the cities that were established and in the palaces that the caliphs built for their courts. The life of wealth and luxury was mainly confined to the upper classes in society which included, for instance, senior statesmen, traders and manufacturers. Therefore, the vast majority of the population belonged to the middle and lower classes. Because of the many lifestyles, ideas and cultures, order in the ‘Abbasid cities was constantly challenged by the different religious and scientific movements promoting different beliefs and practices. 

In the midst of the political events and great social changes, the fuqaha established their own authority and standing within the caliphate, which made them influential, but also targets for authoritarian rulers. In fact, Imam Ahmad came from a family of political engagement. His grandfather had fought for the establishment of the ‘Abbasid dawla and his father had been an officer in the ‘Abbasid military. Imam Ahmad dedicated his life to scholarship, but never ceased to call the men in power to uphold the beliefs and practices of the people of the Sunna. Although he often disagreed with the political conduct of the caliphate, he did not call people to rise against the caliphs, holding that such uprisings would oppose the laws of the Shari’a and lead to further civil strife. 

He is known to have deliberately withdrawn from political affairs. He refused to accept gifts from the rulers and distanced himself from politics. Thus he avoided cultivating relationships with the leaders, but never arose against them, nor encouraged such rebellions. As we know from the mihna from the time of al-Ma’mun onwards, when he was tortured for holding on to the original creed of the Muslims, he stood firm against any deviating doctrines enforced by those in command of the Muslims. Famously, he refused to accept the Mu’tazili doctrine of the createdness of the Qur’an. As Abu Zahra writes: 

Four khalifs tried him in various ways but he emerged from all these trials a righteous man. Al-Ma’mun tested him through injury. He was brought to him shackled in heavy iron chains and subjected to great hardship. Al-Mu‘tasim tested him with imprisonment and flogging. Al-Wathiq tested him with a ban and constriction.They did not deflect him from his convictions. Then after those afflictions, he was tested by a different sort of trial. Al-Mutawakkil sent him good things but he rejected them, making himself go hungry and not taking anything whose lawfulness was uncertain. He was scrupulous about that.5

As we know, the scholars were the most severely tested by the mihna and Imam Ahmad was one of the few who remained firm against it, becoming as it were, a symbol for steadfastness and holding to the truth in the face of oppressive leadership. 

4. Scholarship in the ‘Abbasid period

The early ‘Abbasid period is known as the golden age of science and culture in the history of Islam. Caliphs encouraged scientific developments and granted patronage to scholars, trying to keep them close to themselves by honouring as well as threatening them. By involvement in science and adab, encompassing a variety of literary disciplines, people of knowledge qualified for high positions in society and scholarship thus became closely linked to politics.  

It was also a time of great translation projects. Books from a number of different languages and scientific traditions were made available in Arabic. The most important were the Persian and Greek traditions. Works of ancient Greek philosophy in particular were translated and made their way into Muslim societies under caliphal supervision. 

The Bayt al-Hikma was established in Baghdad and it became a centre for scientific development. The caliphal capital, in which Imam Ahmad was active, witnessed intense debates and great disagreements among the various scientific movements. Most importantly, the Mu’tazila brought the rationalist and philosophical approach to science into the Arabic intellectual discourse, which stirred up great debates. It affected all men of knowledge, regardless of their philosophical stance. It is within this context that we understand the scholarship of Imam Ahmad and his followers, many of whom became known for their defence against the deviating beliefs that spread among the rationalist theologians of kalam. 

After Imam ash-Shafi’i had laid down the rules for deriving legal judgements from the Qur’an and Sunna, Imam Ahmad began to lay down the rules for the sciences of hadith. His scholarship, manifested by his Musnad, made him widely recognised as the leading scholar of hadith. His works became a milestone in the development towards hadith as a specialised and clearly defined science, distinct from the science of fiqh. As Shaykh Abdalhaqq writes about his Musnad:

For Imam Ahmad the Musnad was like a great painting in which the myriad reports it contained were the individual brush strokes which together made up the most accurate portrayal he could possibly convey of what the din of Islam had been like in its original, pristine condition. It was this picture, made up of sayings of the Prophet @ and reports and decisions from the Companions, may Allah be pleased with all of them, which was the bedrock on which Imam Ahmad built his life and on which he based all his judgments.6  

When characterising the fiqh of Imam Ahmad, Abu Zahra writes:

When we study Hanbali fiqh we find a mature strong living fiqh in which two elements can be seen, both of which were strengthened and their scope extended in the area of behaviour more than other areas of fiqh: tradition and latitude. 

Ahmad’s fiqh is one in which tradition is manifested in its strongest and clearest form. He preferred the opinions of theCompanions. When there were two opinions among the Companions he chose between them. Sometimes he opted for one, but sometimes he had two opinions on the same question,when he did not consider that he had the right to choose between the opinions of those noble people without a justifying text since that would involve contradicting one of them.When there was no text or tradition on a matter from the Companions, he exercised ijtihad. 

In the area of social transactions, when there was no text or tradition or possible analogy, he let the matter rest on its basic permissibility. That is why in the field of contracts and preconditions, his is the Islamic fiqh with the widest and most extensive scope because it considers contracts and preconditions to be basically sound unless there is clear evidence that they are invalid. No evidence of validity is necessary. Evidence is only required to demonstrate invalidity.7 

As a master of hadith, his legal thinking was, similarly to Imam ash-Shafi’i, largely based on texts. Shaykh Abdalhaqq continues:

In as far as he had a methodology for deriving judgments from these sources, he depended upon Imam ash-Shafi‘i, under whom he studied and who was one of his most revered teachers. When he met Imam ash-Shafi‘i he learned the rules for sound understanding of the Book and reports of the Sunnah, comparison of textual sources, knowledge of the abrogating and abrogated, and in general how to deduce secondary rulings from the basic sources of the Shari‘ah. So in this respect he was certainly not the same as the other three imams, each of whom had their own very distinct methodology for deriving judgments in the din.8 

Thus, we return to the question of Imam Ahmad as a scholar of hadith or fiqh. Abu Zahra writes:

Imam Ahmad was the faqih who was dominated by righteousness to the point that his very righteousness prevented him from following through his fiqh to the furthest extent. He hesitated when others went ahead and wavered when others resolved. He paused over the meaning when others spoke. He was silent about fatwas when others rushed to give them. That is why his inclination to hadiths predominated over his fiqh, leading some scholars to reckon him a hadith scholar rather than a faqih.9 

He continues: 

The view of those who denied that Imam Ahmad was a faqih is supported by the fact that no book on fiqh is reported from him, whereas the Musnad is. During his time a great deal was written about fiqh. Muhammad ash-Shaybani collected the fiqh of Iraq. Abu Yusuf wrote books on fiqh, and ash-Shafi‘i dictated or wrote down his school. Ahmad, on the other hand, as historians agree, did not do so at all. 

That shows that he was a muhaddith and not a faqih, or at least that hadiths dominated his fiqh. There is no doubt that some hadith scholars held opinions regarding matters of fiqh: al-Bukhari falls into that category, as does Muslim. That does not change them from being hadith scholars to being fuqaha’. If someone is absorbed in the study of hadiths and specialises in it, he is a muhaddith. If someone gives many fatwas and is absorbed in that, he is a faqih. We do not find anyone who combines them both equally except Imam Malik ibn Anas, who was unique in that respect.

Ahmad ibn Hanbal was a faqih as well as a hadith scholar, even though we admit that his inclination to hadiths was stronger. He did not leave any writing on fiqh but left the great Musnad on hadiths. He became an Imam in fiqh after his death, and that was because his students collected together his statements, fatwas and opinions, forming a legal collection which was ascribed to him. Sometimes the transmissions from him varied, as was the case on several occasions, and sometimes they agreed.

That was the view of Ibn al-Qayyim, who states in I‘lam al-Muwaqq‘in: “The reason why Ahmad did not write a book was that he strongly disliked writing books on any other subject than hadiths, but Allah knows best what his intention was. It was his students who concerned themselves with recording his books and fatwas.”10

Regardless of how Imam Ahmad viewed himself, his scholarship laid the foundation for what became a clearly defined madhhab among his followers. When reflecting on the reasons for why Imam Ahmad became the founder of a madhhab and what made his followers form a legal guild based on his legacy, Shaykh Abdalhaqq writes:

Another reason, perhaps, why Imam Ahmad was made the founder of a new school of fiqh was because of his absolutely exemplary character which inspired many people to take him as a model during his own lifetime. There is no doubt that all four imams were impeccable in their personal behaviour and all of them had superlative qualities of character that marked them out among their contemporaries. Imam Ahmad, however, had a reputation for saintliness which outshone all of them. From his earliest youth he was famous for his incorruptible integrity which was put to a severe test later in his life when he, unlike almost all his contemporaries, suffered over two years of imprisonment and constant severe beatings rather than adopt the rationalist Mu‘tazili doctrine of the createdness of the Qur’an which had become official Abbasid government policy and which was clearly contrary to the position held by the early Muslims. This event also showed his steadfastness and patience which saw him through the many other difficult periods which punctuated his long life.11

Other qualities he possessed were great generosity in spite of scant means, transparent sincerity, scrupulousness and abstinence, modesty and cheerfulness, and a natural authority which ensured that people paid attention to what he said. So strong was his connection with the early days of Islam, and so brightly was the light of that time reflected in all he said and did, that some of his contemporaries described him as being a great Follower removed from his proper time. All these things and his status as a man of knowledge meant that when he died on 12th Rabi‘ al-Awwal 241AH more than three hundred thousand people joined his funeral procession.12  

In his I‘lam al-Muwaqq‘in, Ibn al-Qayyim writes:

[Abu Bakr] Al-Khallal collected Imam Ahmad’s texts in the Great Collection [al-Jâmi’ al-Kabir], which comprised twenty or more volumes. His fatwas and questions were related, and people reported them generation after generation. He became an Imam and model for people of the Sunna in subsequent generations, to the point that even those who opposed his school by ijtihad and imitated others esteemed his texts and fatwas. They gave them their due and acknowledged their closeness to the texts and fatwas of the Companions. Anyone who considers his fatwas and those of the Companions will see a correspondence between them. All can see that it seems as if they came from the same niche.”13 

After the death of Imam Ahmad, many great scholars followed in his footsteps. Among the most famous were Abu Bakr al-Khallal (d. 311), Ibn ‘Aqil (d. 488), ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani (d. 561), Abu’l-Faraj ibn al-Jawzi (d. 597), Ibn Qudama (d. 629), Ibn Taymiyya (d. 728), Ibn al-Qawwim (d. 751), Ibn Rajab (d. 795). In the modern age, reform movements of the 17th century onwards began to refer to the Hanbali legacy in their political and theological positions, although their views were quite removed form the traditional form of the madhhab. This later development and its impact on the Muslim community down to our own time will, however, be examined in the two last lectures of this course, dedicated to the modern reform movements.

7. Conclusion

Before summarising his significance, it is fitting that we conclude with the words of Imam Ahmad himself, who said:

A man should not set himself up to give independent judgment about the din unless he possesses five qualities. He must have a clear intention because unless he has he will have no light. He must have knowledge, forbearance, gravity and tranquillity. He must be firm in his knowledge. He must be independent and not dependent on other people. And he must be known to people.”14

And finally, Shaykh Abdalhaqq summarises his importance as follows:

There are few people in the history of Islam who have fulfilled these criteria to the extent that Imam Ahmad himself did. So what can certainly be said is that Imam Ahmad was a mujtahid of the very highest rank, absolutely able to make independent judgments concerning matters of the din. That does not in itself, however, automatically make him the founder of an independent school of fiqh and, if he was, it was certainly in a very different way to that of his three pre-eminent predecessors.15

That brings us to the end of today’s lecture. Next week’s lecture is entitled “Origins of the Schools of ’Aqida” and will be delivered by Shaykh ‘Ali Laraki. Recommended reading in relation to this lecture is the chapter on Imam Ahmad in Abu Zahra’s The Four Imams (2013). For the up-coming lecture, we recommend you to have a look at The Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Theology (2008), which contains many useful articles about the early development of the sciences of ‘aqida, and Nuh Keller’s article “Kalam and Islam”, which is available online. Thank you for your attention.

السلام عليكم


Abu Zahra, Muhammad 2013. The Four Imams: Their lives, works and their schools of thought. London: Dar al-Taqwa. 

Bewley, Abdalhaqq 2013. The Four Madhhabs of Islam. Norwich: Diwan Press.

1 Bewley 2013: XX.

2 Bewley 2013: XX.

3 Bewley 2013: XX.

4 Bewley 2013: XX.

5 Abu Zahra 2013: 385-6.

6 Bewley 2013: XX.

7 Abu Zahra 2013: 389.

8 Bewley 2013: XX.

9 Abu Zahra 2013: 386. 

10 Abu Zahra 2013: 386-7.

11 Bewley 2013: XX.

12 Bewley 2013: XX.

13 Abu Zahra 2013: 387-8.

14 Bewley 2013: XX.

15 Bewley 2013: XX.