Although the name Ahmad has been over the whole history of Islam one of the most common names in Islamic culture and throughout the Muslim world, when it is mentioned on its own in any scholarly work of Hadith or Fiqh, there can be no mistake that the reference is to Ahmad ibn Hanbal. Ahmad was the founder of the fourth school of thought, but the ranking is made only on the basis of chronological order.
He was born in 164 AH, corresponding to AD 781. This means that his birth took place 14 years after Abu Haneefah’s death, and 15 years before Malik’s death, but the two did not meet. He was a student of Shafie whom he respected very highly. His full name was Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Hanbal Al-Shaibani, which means that Hanbal was his grandfather, but the affiliation to his grandfather stuck to him, perhaps because his father died when he was a very young baby. Indeed he mentions that he did not see his father, which suggests that the father died when the young child was not yet able to recognize people with eyesight.
His grandfather was a governor in Persia, and although the family was purely an Arab one, it lived in Persia for many years that some of its members found it easier to converse in Persian, rather than Arabic. Ahmad himself spoke Persian, although the family moved to Baghdad when he was still very young.
That helped Ahmad who showed strong inclinations to study and learning. His uncle was looking after the family, and directed his early studies, but it was his mother’s influence that had the clearest mark on his upbringing and future attitudes. She was a remarkable woman of very strong faith and serious attitude. His early promise was recognized by teachers and friends. Thus, he was known to be among scholars as “the pious young man” and in his old age he was the master scholar withstanding torture and hardship for his beliefs.
Ahmad memorized the Qur’an at an early age, and as he was directed by his uncle and his mother to pursue his studies, his serious nature and early pious attitude ensured that he sought to study Fiqh, or Islamic jurisprudence. Baghdad was at the time not only the political capital of the vast Islamic state, stretching from the Atlantic in North Africa to Central Asia it was also the most important center of Islamic scholarship, witnessing at the same time the penetrating influence of other cultures, including Greek philosophy, Indian mythology and Persian traditions. Ahmad sought none of these, but went straight into the study of Fiqh, reading under Abu Yussuf, the best known student of Abu Haneefah. This means that his early studies took him into learning Fiqh that gave scholarly discretion a very high rank and relied much on analogy. But soon afterward, he decided to pursue the study of Hadith, delaying Fiqh study for a while.
Ahmad started his pursuit of the study of Hadith in Baghdad at the age of 15, and continued to give it its full attention there for seven years. He realized that the main scholars of Hadith did not all live in the capital. So he decided to seek them wherever they lived. He began to travel to Basrah, Kufah, Hijaz and Yemen. He is said to have traveled five times to Basrah, and paid a similar number of visits to Hijaz. However, in the latter trips he combined offering the pilgrimage with his studies.
On all these trips, Ahmad’s aim was to listen to the Prophet’s Hadiths from scholars personally. He could have easily learned the Hadiths from their books, but he was keen to listen to their Hadiths as they personally reported them. That is a recognized virtue of excellence in the scholarship of Hadith, because it ensured a smaller number of reporters in the chain of transmission of a Hadith between the student and the Prophet himself. A shorter chain of transmitters, who were all reliable and trustworthy, meant the room for error is practically nonexistent. Hence, scholars were keen to seek a Hadith at the shortest chain of transmission they could achieve, even though that might have required them to undertake a long journey.
His trip to Yemen was one such effort. He was keen to meet Abdurrazzaq ibn Hammam, an eminent scholar of Hadith who was at the time, and remains today, widely famous. In fact, he had met Abdurrazzaq during pilgrimage, and he could have learned from him whatever he wanted to learn, sparing himself a long journey to Yemen, but he preferred to learn from the scholars of Makkah and Madinah while he was on pilgrimage, and to go to Abdurrazzaq in Yemen later. That way, he would hope for God’s reward for his arduous journey and get all that he could from the Yemeni scholar in his home surroundings.
Up to this stage, we recognize two major influences on Ahmad’s scholarship: the early study of Fiqh under Abu Yussuf and the Hadith study through which he collected a wealth of statements by the Prophet, or Hadiths, together with rulings by the Prophet’s companions and their successors as well as their judgments in disputes put to them. This represented a strong exposure to the practical application of Hadith and other religious text, which means that he was not isolated from Fiqh during his study of Hadith. However, a third influence was soon to have a major bearing on Ahmad and his scholarship. That was his meeting with Shafie who by that time had developed his methodological approach to Fiqh and the fundamental rules he set for construction and deduction of rulings and judgments. When he studied under Shafie, he started to review what he had learned and collected Hadiths and reports of the Prophet’s companions and their successors so as to pinpoint the relevance of those texts and reports to practical matters. That gave him a profound insight in Fiqh which was rare among scholars of Hadith. Thus, Ahmad was at the same time a top scholar of Hadith and a top scholar of Fiqh. That combination gave him a rare standard of excellence.
It was not until Ahmad was 40 years of age that he had a circle where he taught and gave rulings on any question put to him. This does not mean that he would not have given rulings earlier than that. Indeed he would answer when a question was put to him, because abstention meant suppression of knowledge and that is forbidden in Islam. But he would not sit for teaching and issuing rulings until he was 40. He had two reasons for that: the first was to follow the Prophet’s example, who received his revelations and became a teacher for mankind at that age, and the other his respect for his teachers meant that he would not teach while they were alive. It was a coincidence that Shafie died in 204, when Ahmad was 40. It is a point to remember that Abu Haneefah did the same, taking his position at the head of a study circle at the age of 40.
It did not take long for Ahmad to become widely known. Indeed his circle was soon very large, with some reports putting the number of students and listeners attending it at 5,000, among whom one-tenth wrote what he taught. While this may be rather exaggerated, even a circle one-fifth that size, i.e. 1,000 students, is very large by any standard. People loved his teaching because they recognized in him a teacher of wide knowledge, and a highly pious man who spared no effort in pursuing and disseminating knowledge.
Three factors enhanced Ahmad’s popularity as a teacher. The first was that his serious attitude to learning and teaching, which was noticed in him since his early learning years in his childhood, was coupled with exemplary humility and contentment. Secondly, he was always keen to report only that of which he was absolutely certain. Hence, he did not rely on his memory, fine as it was. He always referred to his books, which he had written with his own hand, when he learned from his teachers.
He feared that if he would report from memory, he might be mistaken and he would attribute to the Prophet what the Prophet did not actually say. Thirdly, he taught his students to write down what they learned 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 Qur’an and the Hadith.
This meant that despite the numerous trends of scholarship with which Baghdad was bustling at the time, Ahmad rejected any study that was not based on the Qur’an and Hadith only. Thus, 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 Qur’an were purely attributes of His, or they were the same as Himself. To him, that was a pursuit that brought no useful results.