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Right from his early days, the desire of Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal for knowledge was apparent. As a young man, he preferred to choose the company of men of Hadith and adopted their methods. He turned to them, but this does not mean that he rejected completely the works of the scholars of Islamic jurisprudence, such as their legal verdicts, their judgments and their exegesis.
On the contrary, he analyzed and studied them, but did not make them his primary study material. Commenting on this, Al-Khallal said: “He wrote and memorized the books of (juristic) opinion, then he paid no heed to them.” [Tareekh Al Islam by Az-Zahabi, vol-18, p-69]
The first person from whom Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal narrated Hadith was Abu Yusuf; he said: “The first person from whom he wrote down Hadith was Abu Yusuf.” [Manaqib Al-Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal, p-26]
Abu Yusuf combined the approach of the scholars of juristic opinion with that of the scholars of Hadith.
Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal studied Hadith from the earliest years of his manhood and once he had resolved to do so, he found no alternative but to acquire knowledge from all of the scholars of Hadith in Iraq, Ash-Sham and Al-Hijaz. It is probable that he was the first scholar of Hadith to collect and record the AHadith: from all of these regions; indeed, his Musnad testifies to this fact, for he collected the AHadith from Al-Hijaz, Ash-Sham, Al Basrah and Al-Koofah and listed them in their appropriate categories.
It was logical that he should begin by collecting AHadith in the city where he lived, which was Baghdad. It was also natural at the start of his academic life that he should need a teacher from whom he could acquire knowledge exclusively, without reference to any other teacher, until such time as he became strong (in knowledge) and his ability to distinguish and select developed.
That teacher was Hushairn bin Basheer bin Abi Haz irn, who died in the year 183 A. H. Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal began learning from him in the year 179 A. H., when he was sixteen years old. Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal commented on this allegiance, saying: “We started recorded Hadith from Hushaim in the year 179 A. H. and we remained with him throughout the years 180, 181, 182 and 183 A. H., in which year he died.” [Manaqib Al-Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal, p-29]
“I began to study Hadith when I was sixteen years old and Hushaim died when I was twenty years old. I first began to hear from Hushaim in the year 179 A. H.” [Manaqib Al-Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal, p-26]
After the death of Hushaim, Ahmad began to acquire AHadith wherever he could find them and he was extremely avid in doing so. He used to undergo great suffering in the cause of obtaining such knowledge and he said regarding this: “I would sometimes wish to go very early to study Hadith, but my mother would catch hold of my garment and say: “(Wait) until permission is given to the people (i.e. the students), or until daybreak.” [Manaqib Al-Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal, p-31]
Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal’s Journeys in Pursuit of Knowledge
Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal’s journeys in pursuit of knowledge began in the year 186 A. H, in order to acquire knowledge from the men of Hadith. He traveled to Al-Basrah, Al-Hijaz, Yemen and Al Koofah; and his journeys to these places and the hardships which he endured during them prove his keen desire to acquire knowledge and his readiness to exert himself to the utmost and to spend his wealth in pursuit of that goal.
Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal traveled to Al-Basrah five times and he would sometimes remain there for six months or longer.
He also made five journeys to Al-Hijaz, the first of which was in the year187 A. H. and during this visit, he met Imam Shafi and in addition to the Hadith of bin ‘Uyainah – which had been the object of his journey – he learnt the jurisprudence of Imam Shafi.
He spoke of his journeys to Al-Hijaz as follows: “I performed Hajj five times – three times on foot – and during one of these pilgrimages, I spent thirty dirhams and during one of them, I lost the way when I was walking, so I stood in the road and I began to call out: “Oh, slaves of Allah! Show me the way …” [Tareekh Ibn Katheer]
He performed Hajj on foot in order to carry out the rites of Hajj, so that he could get close to the Sacred House of Allah and also learn the Hadith of the Messenger of Allah (Pbuh) and to study the legal verdicts of his loyal Companions.
He hoped for the reward of Hijrah [Migration for Allah’s sake] from Allah, for he knew what a great recompense there is for the Muhajir [one who migrates for Allah’s sake] and so sought it, and neither long distance nor the difficulties of traveling prevented him from seeking knowledge.
In the year 198 A. H., he decided to go to Hajj and after performing the Hajj and then staying for a while in the vicinity of the Sacred Mosque, to go to ‘Abdur-Razzaq bin Hammam in San’ a’. He and his fellow-seeker of knowledge, Yahya bin Ma’een had agreed to do this, so they entered Makkah and while they were performing Tawaf Al-Qudoom [circum-ambulation of ka’bah made upon arrival in makkah by a hajj pilgrim], they saw AbdurRazzaq bin Hamam performing the Tawaf.
Ibn Ma’een recognized him, for he had met him before and he gave salutation of peace to him and said to him: “This is your brother (in Islam), Ahmad bin Hanbal.” To which he replied: May Allah grant him long life and make him steadfast, for I have heard nothing but good of him.” Yahya said: “We will come to you tomorrow, if Allah wills, so that we may hear and write.”
Then when Abdur-Razzaq had left, Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal remonstrated with Yahya saying: “Why did you take an appointment from the Shaikh?” Yahya replied: “In order to hear from him; Allah has saved you a month’s journey there and a month’s journey back and He has saved you the expense.”
Ahmad said: “I do not wish that Allah should see me having forsaken the intention I made (to go to Yemen) because of what you have said, that we should stay and hear from him.” So after Hajj, he went on to Sana, where he heard from him. [Ibn Hanbal by abu zahrah, pp-24&25 and Manaqib Al-Imam Ahmed,p-34]
During this journey, he suffered discomfort, illness and poverty, his supplies running out while he was on the road and so he found employment with some baggage carriers until he reached Sana’.
When he arrived in Sana’, Abdur-Razzaq tried to help him, saying: “Oh, Abu I Abdullah! Take this and use it, for our land is neither a land of business nor profit.” So saying, he proffered some dinars to Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal, but he said: “I am alright.” So he remained in this state of hardship for two years. [Ibn Hanbal by Abu Zahrah, p-25]
When Ahmad bin Hanbal returned to Makkah, after visiting Abdur-Razzaq, the signs of tiredness and suffering were clear upon his face and his body, but he was happy at the AHadith of the Messenger of Allah which he had acquired.
Ibraheem Ad-Durooqi: “When Ahmad bin Hanbal returned to Makkah from Abdur-Razzaq, I saw that he was pale and emaciated and the effects of illness and exhaustion were clear upon him, so I said to him: “Oh, Abu I Abdullah! You have inflicted much hardship on yourself during your journey to “Abdur Razzaq.” But he replied: “How slight is the hardship compared to the benefit we gained from Abdur Razzaq; we recorded from him the Hadith of Az Zuhri on the authority of Salim bin’ Abdullah, who reported on the authority of his father and the Hadith of Az-Zuhri on the authority of Saeed bin A] Musayyib, who reported on the authority of Abu Hurairah. [Manaqib Al-Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal by Ibn Al-Jawzi, p-37]
Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal did not cease seeking knowledge, even after he had become famous, narrated many AHadith and attained the status of Imam. A man from among his contemporaries saw him with an inkwell in his hand from which he was writing and listening. The man said: “Oh, Abu’ Abdullah! You have achieved this status and you are the Imam of the Muslims.” He replied: “(I will be) with the inkwell until (I go to) the graveyard.”
He also said: “I will seek knowledge until I enter the grave.” [Manaqib Al-Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal by Ibn Al-Jawzi, p-37]
He would walk for long distances in order to acquire knowledge; his son, ‘Abdullah said: “My father went Tarsus on foot and he went to Yemen on foot.”
He saw no problem in acquiring knowledge from those who had less knowledge than he; he stayed with Yahya bin Sa’eed Al-Qattan, then he traveled to Wasit and Yahya bin Sa’eed asked about him. It was said:
“He has gone to Wasit.” He asked: “What will he do with Wasit?” They said: “He is staying with Yazeed bin Haroon.” He asked: “And what will he do while he is with Yazeed bin Haroon?” [Hilyah Al-Awliya & Tahzeeb Al-kamal, vol-1, p-450] By this, he meant that bin Hanbal was more knowledgeable than bin Haroon.
Among the proofs of his devotion to knowledge, his dedication to acquiring it and his preference for it over the pleasures of this earthly life, is the fact that he was not preoccupied with acquiring money or getting married – he did not marry until he had attained forty years of age and he had acquired the knowledge which he desired.
Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal’s Authority & Influence in the Fields of Jurisprudence
Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal held a great respect amongst the other contemporary scholars who spoke high about him.
Ahmad bin Salamah An-Neesapoori said: “I mentioned Yahya bin Yahya, lshaq bin Rahawaih and Ahmad bin Hanbal to Qutaibah bin Sa’eed and he said: “Ahmad bin Hanbal is the greatest (in knowledge) of all those whom you mentioned.” [Al-Jarh Wat-Ta’deel]
Ishaq bin Rahawaih said: “I was sitting with Ahmad bin Hanbal, Yahya bin Ma’een and our companions in Iraq and we were speaking together of Hadith narrated via one, two or three routes. Yahya bin Ma’ een said: “I say, has not this route been declared authentic by a consensus of scholars?” They said: “Yes.” He said: “So I ask, what is intended by it, what is the explanation of it and what is the jurisprudence which may be derived from it?” But all of them remained [silent] except Ahmad bin Hanbal.” [-Jarh Wat-Ta’deel]
Muhammad bin Muslim bin warah was asked about ‘Ali bin Al-Madeeni and Yahya bin Maeen, which of them had memorized the most Hadith? He replied: ‘”Ali transmitted more AHadith and had a more comprehensive knowledge (of Hadith), while Yahya had a greater understanding of authentic and weak AHadith … But the person who combined the attributes of both of them Abu ‘Abdullah Ahmad bin Hanbal: he was a scholar of Islamic jurisprudence, he had memorized a great number of AHadith and he possessed knowledge and understanding.” [Al-Jarh Wat-Ta’deel]
The scholars’ acknowledgement of Ahmad’s superior knowledge did not come when he was advanced in years and his hair had turned white; on the contrary, it came when he was a young man, before his hair had turned white. It is reported on the authority of Ahmad bin Sa’ eed Ar-Razi that he said: “I have not seen a blacker head of hair (i.e. such a young man), nor a person who had memorized more AHadith of the Messenger of Allah, nor one with a greater knowledge of the Islamic jurisprudence derived from them and a greater understanding of their meanings than Ahmad ‘bin Hanbal.” [Tareekh Al-Islam]
Al-Muzani said: “Ash-Shafi’i said: “I saw a young man in Baghdad, who, if he said: “Haddathana…” [That is, “I was told”. This is an expression commonly used by scholars of Hadith to indicate that they heard a Hadith directly from someone] the people would all say: “He has spoken the truth.” I asked him: “And who was he?” He replied: “Ahmad bin Hanbal.” [Tareekh Al-Islam]
Many scholars were hugely impressed by him, and one senses this in every word they said about him; Ibraheem Al-Harbi said: “I saw Ahmad and it was as if Allah had combined in him the knowledge the ancient peoples and the later generations.”
Abu Bakr AI-Athram said: “I have seen a man with a greater knowledge of the Sunnah than Ahmad.” [Tareekh Al-Islam]
Abu Jafar An-Nufaili said of him: “Ahmad was one of the most distinguished leaders of the religion.”
And it is reported on the authority of Muhammad bin Nasr Al-Mirwizi that he said: “I met with Ahmad bin Hanbal and I asked him about some matters and (I found that) he knew more AHadith than Ishaq bin Rahawaih, that he was more knowledgeable in matters of Islamic jurisprudence than he.”
But his knowledge was not simply that of a large number of AHadith, on the contrary, it was also knowledge derived from reliable sources, which is why Arnr An-Naqid said: “If Ahmad agrees with me regarding (the authenticity of) a Hadith, I do not care who disagrees with me.”
Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal’s Courteous & Polite behavior in the Presence of His Shaikhs
He who understands the value of knowledge appreciates the worth of the teacher and treats him with esteem and conducts himself with courteousness and politeness in his presence. Ahmad – may Allah have mercy on him – understood more than most people the value of knowledge and its importance, for which reason, he honored his teachers, held them in high esteem and behaved ‘with courteousness and politeness in their presence.
Amr An-Naqid said: “We were with Wakee’ and Ahmad came and sat down and Wakee’ began to praise his humility in his presence.” “Amr said: “So I said: “Oh, Abu ‘Abdullah! The Shaikh is honoring you; so why do you not speak?” He said: “Even though he may honor me, it is incumbent on me to revere and respect him.” [Manaqib Al-Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal, p-70]
Qutaibah bin Sa’ eed said: “I arrived in Baghdad with no intention except to meet Ahmad bin Han bal, and he came to me, accompanied by Yahya bin Maeen and we talked together for a while, then Ahmad bin Hanbal stood up and came and sat down in front of me and said: “Read this to me.” Then we talked for a while, then he stood up and came and sat in front of me, so I said: “Oh, Abu’ Abdullah! Sit in your place.” But he said: Do not concern, yourself with me, I only wish to take the knowledge in the correct manner.” [Manaqib Al-Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal, p-71]
Ishaq Ash-Shaheedi said: “I was watching Yahya Al Qattan offer the ‘Asr prayer, then he leaned on the base of the minaret of his mosque and’ Ali bin Al Madeeni, Ash-Shazkooni, ‘Amr bin ‘Ali, Ahmad bin Hanbal, Yahya bin Ma’een and others stood before him and they asked him about Hadith while they were standing up, until the time for the Magrib prayer approached; and none of them said: “Sit down, nor did they sit, out of reverence and respect for him.” [Manaqib Al-Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal, p-71]
And there is a rare example of this Imam’s greatness, his reverence for knowledge and his politeness and courteousness in the presence of scholars, reported by Khalaf, who said: If Ahmad bin Hanbal came to me to hear the Hadith of Abu Awanah and I attempted to seat him in an elevated position, but he refused, saying: “I will not sit except facing you; we were ordered to show humility before those from whom we are learning.” [ Manaqib Al-Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal by Ibn Al-Jawzi, p-71]
Scholars Held Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal high on esteem
If Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal – may Allah have mercy on him – revered and respected the scholars, they also revered and respected him, due to his knowledge, his piety, his dignity, his awe-inspiring manner and his earnestness and zeal in seeking knowledge and his high moral character.
Ahmad bin Sinan AI-Wasiti said: “I did not see Yazeed bin Haroon honoring anyone the way he honored Ahmad bin Hanbal, and he used to treat him with respect and dignity and he would not joke with him.
When Abu Mugheerah ‘ Abdul Quddoos bin Al-Hajjaj died, Ahmad came forward and offered the prayer over him – and the scholars among the people were numerous at that time – but they gave preference to Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal, although he was still a young man, because of his eminence and the high esteem which they had for him.
Yahya bin Ma’ een – in spite of his own elevated status and great knowledge – used to say: “The people wished that I should be like Ahmad bin Hanbal. No, by Allah! I will never be like Ahmad.” [Al-Jarh Wat-Ta’deel]
I Abd ur-Rahman said: “I heard my father saying: “I saw Qutaibah in Makkah coming and going and nothing was recorded from him, so I said to the people of Hadith: “How can you neglect Qutaibah when I have seen Ahmad bin Hanbal in his sitting room?” When they heard this from me they went to him and recorded his words.” [Al-Jarh Wat-Ta’deel]
Yahya bin Sa’eed Al-Qattan said of him: “No~ one the like of Ahmad bin Hanbal has come to me.” [Tahzeeb Al-kamal, vol-1,p-449]
Abul Waleed At-Tavalisi said: “There is no one in the two cities – meaning Al-Basrah and Al-Koofah – more beloved to me than Ahmad bin Hanbal, nor is there anyone whom I esteem more deeply in my heart than him” [Tahzeeb Al-kamal, vol-1,p-451]
“Abdullah bin AI-Mubarak – who was a venerable Shaikh – told us: “I was in the house of Isma’ eel bin ‘Ulayyah and someone spoke about something and some of us laughed, while Ahmad bin Hanbal was there.” He said: “So we went to Isma’eel bin ‘Ulayyah and found him in a state of anger, and he said: “Do you laugh, when Ahmad bin Hanbal is here with me?” [Tahzeeb Al-kamal,vol-1,p448]
The command of Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal on Arabic Language
No one can claim to be a Mujtahid [A scholar who is able to apply juristic reasoning to a matter and reach an independent decision based on the interpretation and application of the four Usool that is Qur’an, Hadith, Qiyas meaning analogy and Ijtihad] or a scholar of Islamic jurisprudence, or an authority on any branch of Islamic Science, unless he is a scholar of Arabic language, its grammar, inflection and rhetoric; he must also have an expert literary style, a minute knowledge of the language’s intricacies and secrets, in order to be able to understand the Book of Allah and the Sunnah of the Messenger of Allah correctly.
Such knowledge and understanding does not come to a person unless and until he has studied a great deal of poetry and prose and trains himself with it, so that he only speaks in a manner which accords with the Arabic way of speaking.
Thus was Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal. It is sufficient testimony for him that a man who was himself a master of the Arabic language, well-acquainted with its secrets and well-versed in its mysteries testified to Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal’s proficiency and knowledge; and that man was Imam Shafi – May Allah have mercy on him – who said: “Ahmad is an Imam in eight fields: He is an Imam in Hadith, in Islamic jurisprudence, in (Arabic) language, in the Qur’ an, in poverty, in ascetism, in piety and in the Sunnah.” [Tabaqat Al-Hanabilah, Vol-1, p-5]
Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal knew the importance of Arabic language to those who desired to have a broad understanding of the Words of Allah and to unearth the treasures of (Divine) Commandments, Wisdoms and Admonitions, and that is why he engaged himself in writing Arabic, as he said: “I wrote more Arabic than did Abu Amr bin AI- Alai.”
He used to be asked about Arabic expressions in the Quran and in the Sunnah and he would answer in the most clear and erudite manner. Al-Mirwazi said: “Abu Abdullah - Imam Ahmad bin hanbal – did not use slang in his speech.” [Kitab Ahmad bin Hanbal by Abdul Ghani Ad-Daqr, p-78]
Lectures of Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal
Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal did not hold teaching sessions or deliver formal legal verdicts until he was an accomplished scholar and word had spread of his God-fearing character, his piety, his modesty and, integrity, his devotion to seeking knowledge and his striving to that end, no matter what difficulties he encountered and no matter how far the distances he had to travel.
Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal did not deliver formal legal verdicts until after he had attained forty years of age – which was the age at which the Messenger of Allah, began his Prophetic Mission – but that does not mean that he did not answer those who asked him questions about certain (Islamic) matters until he reached that age. It was not his intention to conceal knowledge, it was simply that he did not intend to deliver legal verdicts until and hold teaching sessions until that age, when he found a place vacant, which he filled.
It is clear that Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal did not hold teaching sessions and deliver legal verdicts until the people started coming to him and asking him questions about Hadith and Islamic jurisprudence, which obliged him to hold sessions in which he might answer them in the mosque.
His excellent characteristics after that caused his fame to grow and increase and the people spread word of his virtue, his diffidence towards that which the administrators and governors had, his care for the sanctity and safety of the Muslims, his humility and the absence of any desire on his part for fame.
In addition, the trials which he endured revealed the measure of his steadfastness and the strength of his perseverance and patience and the fact that he would not attribute anything to Allah and His Messenger except the truth, even though a sword might be held to his neck – all of this the people knew and so his fame spread and delegations came to him, seeking his knowledge, to such an extent that it was said that the number who listened to his lessons was five thousand and that about five hundred of them used to record (what he said). [Al-Manaqib and Ibn Hanbal, p-32]
The result of the attendance of this great number of people at his lessons was that there were a great number who narrated his jurisprudence and his Hadith.
We should mention at that point that not all of those present were desirous of acquiring Ahmad’s knowledge; on the contrary, some of them wished to take advice or admonishment from him, while others came to see the circumstances of this unusual man and to observe his manners, his guidance and his character.
It was mentioned in Al-Manaqib that one of his contemporaries said: “I visited Abu’ Abdullah Ahmad bin Hanbal for twelve years when he was reading AI-Musnad to his sons, but 1 did not write a single Hadith from him; I was simply drawn to his guidance, his morality and his manners.” [AI-Manaqib by Ibn Al-Jawzi and IbnHanbal by Abu Zahrah, p-33]
It is clear that he used to hold two teaching and Hadith sessions, a private one in his house for his students and his sons and another one in the mosque, which was attended by the ordinary public and by his students. Now if those who attended his lessons were five thousand in number, as it was said, and five hundred of them wrote down (his words), i.e. one tenth of them, then it is clear that it was those who wrote the Hadith from him and narrated them; and they were his selected students, As for the most select of those chosen students, it was those who used to go to his house and learnt from him with his sons and his family members. [Ibn Hanbal-His Life and Times, His opinions and His Juridprudence by Abu Zahrah, p-33]
His lessons were held in the mosque, after the ‘Asr prayer, and they were characterized by calmness and solemnity. It was not his nature to make jokes or indulge in vain talk and this spread to his teaching sessions; his companions knew this and so they never joked in his presence, whether it was in a teaching session or in any other place. Indeed, even his teachers knew this of him and they did not joke in his presence.
Regarding this, Khalaf bin Salim said: “We were sitting in the presence of Yazeed bin Haroon and Yazeed joked with his scribes, and on hearing it, Ahmad bin Hanbal made a coughing sound, [Sound made to show disapproval] upon which, he (i.e. Yazeed) struck his forehead and said: “Why did you not inform me that Ahmad was present, so that I might have refrained from joking? [Ibn Hanbal, p-33]
During his lessons, he avoided any kind of levity, for he considered narrating the Sunnah to be an act of worship.
AI-Mirwazi – Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal’s companion – described his lessons as follows: “I have not seen a poor person honored in any gathering as he was honored in the gatherings of Abu’ Abdullah. He had a great liking for them, preferring them to the people (who were immersed in the life) of this world. He was a gentle person, and he was neither hasty, nor impatient. On the contrary, he was humble man, endowed with surpassing calmness and dignity. When he sat in his lessons after the ‘Asr prayer, he would not speak until he was asked a question.” [Tareekh Al-Islam, by Az-Zahabi and Ibn Hanbal, p-34]
Truly, Ahmad – may Allah have mercy on him – did not speak unless he was asked, because that had a greater effect on the listener – unless it was from his Musnad, for he used to recite that to his sons and his chosen students, without being requested to do so.
Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal would not reply to a question until he had referred to his books, in spite of the fact that (Ahmad) was a Hafiz [the one who memorizes] and was reliable and trustworthy. Indeed, there is a consensus among narrators that there was no greater Hafiz, nor was there anyone more reliable and trustworthy than he in his time. [Ibn Hanbal by Abu Zahrah, p-35]
As for the legal verdicts in matters of Islamic jurisprudence which he was obliged to give, he did not permit his students to write them, nor did he permit them to transmit it from him. He considered that knowledge of the religion was confined to knowledge of the Book (of Allah) and the Sunnah and that it was an innovation to write down people’s opinions in religious matters alongside the Book of Allah and the Sunnah of His Messenger.
Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal got angry when he saw that his legal verdicts are being written in a book or when he sees that his companions transmit his legal verdicts to others.