Ahmad Ibn Hanbal
Ahmad Ibn Hanbal
Defining Islam . The period in which ‘Ahmad Ibn Hanbal lived was filled with ideological controversies about the precise definition of Islam, a discussion that the declining khilafah was unable to dominate. Ibn Hanbal contributed greatly to the emergent Sunni orthodoxy by helping to define the religion, fighting what he saw as heresy, and supporting the hadiths (traditions of the Prophet) as a central source of doctrine and practice alongside the Qur’an. Like the other founding figures of Sunni Islam, he was concerned with establishing firm Sunni conformity to agreed-upon principles.
Life and Works . Born in Baghdad, where his father was one of the Khurasani soldiers who were the chief support of the Abbasid khilafah, Ibn Hanbal spent most of his life in his native city, and does not appear to have traveled much. Thus, he did not meet most of the imams who were later considered founders of legal schools. The only exception was al-Shafn, whom Ibn Hanbal seems to have met only once. Nevertheless, he studied under the most important hadith scholars of his time, including Sufyan ibn Uyaynah (died 813), and later had many well-known students himself, including the compilers of several important hadith collections: al-Bukhari, Muslim, and in particular Abu Dawud, to whom Ibn Hanbal was closely associated.
Hadith Transmitter . Ibn Hanbal is perhaps best remembered for his complete devotion to the hadiths, which were first handed down in oral form. By Ibn Han-bal’s time they had begun to be recorded in writing, and he transmitted a vast collection of more than twenty thousand individual reports of the Prophet’s words and deeds. After his death, this collection was edited and expanded by Ibn Hanbal’s son. It became the best-known, standard collection of its time and greatly helped to establish the currency of the hadiths as the second source of Islam after the Qur’an. Ibn Hanbal’s viewpoint thus came to be regarded as the paradigmatic early expression of the traditionist approach to Islam and its law.
Persecution . Several importatnt consequences emerged from ibn Hanbal’s complete devotion to the hadiths. Because the hadiths were increasingly becoming recorded in written form, Sunni Islam was becoming more and more textually oriented, and Ibn Hanbal’s work reinforced this trend, which included the tendency to observe the letter of the text (that is, a considerable literalism). On these grounds Ibn Hanbal argued from the Qur’an, and especially the hadiths, that the Qur’an is God’s uncreated speech. This view clashed with the rationalist Mu’tazili ideology then patronized by the Abbasid khalifahs as official doctrine, leading to Ibn Hanbal’s persecution under the Khalifah al-Mu’tasim after 833, including imprisonment and corporal punishment. This treatment, however, only enhanced Ibn Hanbal’s reputation, and beginning in 847 he had the satisfaction of seeing the Khalifah al-Mutakkil abandon Mu’tazilism for standard Sunnism.
H. Laoust, “Ahmad b. Hanbal,” in Encyclopedia of Islam, CD-ROM version (Leiden: Brill, 1999).