“I left Baghdad and did not leave behind me anyone more virtuous, more learned, more knowledgeable than Ahmad ibn Hanbal.” – Imam al-Shafi`i

“The true Shaykh of Islam and leader of the Muslims in his time, the hadith master and proof of the Religion.” – Imam al-Dhahabi

The era was one in which the Ummah found herself under hereditary rule. Al-Ma’mun had succeeded to the position of Khalifah. The frontiers of the Islamic State had extended well into Roman and Persian provinces. Scholastic Theology (Ilm ul-Kalam), mysticism and asceticism were rife in these foreign lands and the Ummah, propelled by the life-breathing progressive nature of Islamic thought, was interacting with these neighbouring societies. The Greek and Persian dhimmis viewed the new religion of Islam through the opaque windows of their own cultures. The likes of John of Damascus is said to have sparked-off the great debate of the era about the createdness of the Qur’an. Typically he would try to dispel the Muslims’ question about the Christian dogma on the divinity of Jesus by rhetorically asking about the reference to Jesus as the ‘spirit’ in the Qur’an and if the Qur’an were part of the attributes of Allah, then the book was divine and therefore Jesus was divine too.

These challenges found the Ummah in a serious ideological battle to tackle the issue of allegorical logic and syllogism when explaining divinity. Sects and groups began to emerge in major cities like Damascus, Kufa, Basra and Baghdad. Among them were the Mu’tazilah – a deviant group founded on the basis of Ilm ul-Kalam – who sought to deal with such challenges on the grounds of the philosophers who challenged them; that is, through logic and syllogism itself. Eventually this approach became entrenched in their usul in interpreting the Qur’an and Sunnah. They concluded that the Qur’an was created, in contrast to the traditional position that such an investigation was not possible given the limited nature of man’s mind.

However, the Mu’tazilah school found favour in the eyes of many, including the Khaleefah Al Ma’mun, given their initial status as the defenders of Islam against the rationally based theological attacks of non-Muslims and their philosophical arguments. Driven by this influence, Al-Ma’mun considered the ‘createdness’ of the Qur’an an aqeedah issue and sought to have all subjects under his Khilafah confess to this opinion. This also gave Al-Ma’mun the scope to re-interpret the Shari’ah according to the times and consolidate his position as the ruler. It was this influence during his reign that led him to orchestrate the Minha (inquisition) which led to the imprisonment and persecution of many sincere scholars in all provinces of the Khilafah.

Imam Ahmed ibn Hanbal, may Allah be pleased with him, being a renowned faqih and muhaddith of Baghdad, was not one to be spared. Grounded in the usul of Imam Shafi’i, the learned Imam rejected allegory and philosophy as the basis for determining anything in the matter of the divinity of Allah and like his many teachers found it better to avoid such discussions which would lead to the fitnah of declaring kufr upon another Muslim. But the inquisition, being an official dictate of the Ameer ul Mu’mineen of the time, had to be carried out. When 7 leading scholars of Baghdad relented to the Mu’tazili scholastic opinion under pressure, Imam Ahmed lamented this, thinking that if they had stood strong Al-Ma’mun would not have been able to kill them out of fear of reprisal from the Ummah and that would have been the end of the inquisition in Baghdad. Nevertheless, their failure saw Imam Ahmed and 3 other scholars stand strong. After further inquisition two others gave way, leaving two formidable opponents to the Khalifah’s views – Imam Ahmed and Muhammad ibn Nuh. When cross examined about his adoption on the createdness of the Quran, Imam Ahmed resolutely quoted the verse,

“There is nothing like unto Him and He is all-Hearing, all-Seeing” [TMQ 42:11]

After a few attempts Al Ma’mun summoned him to al-Tartoos for punishment by his hand.

Al-Ma’mun died before Imam Ahmed could be delivered to him and his successor Al Mu’tasim followed through with the inquisition which saw Imam Ahmed face 28 months of torturous imprisonment and flogging. Imam Ahmed related his punishment to his sons and companions saying:

“I lost consciousness many times, and each time when the beating ceased, I would return to my senses, and if I slumped and fell the beating would cease, and this happened to me many times.”

The Imam stood firmly in the face of brutality and this started to generate public opinion against the Khaleefah. News of his situation mobilised the masses and the brutality of the rulers was so exposed and reviled that it made it hard for the rulers to kill him. Subhan-Allah!

Imam Ahmed bore the scars and pains of the beatings throughout the remainder of his life until it finally took its toll when he fell ill and died in Baghdad on Friday Rabi’ al-Awwal, 241 AH (July 31, 855 CE). The news of his death spread far and wide and people flooded the streets to attend Imam Ahmed’s funeral. One of the rulers, upon hearing the news, sent burial shrouds along with perfumes to be used for Ahmad’s funeral. However, respecting the Ahmad’s wishes, his sons refused the offering and instead used a burial shroud prepared by his female servant. Moreover, his sons took care not to use water from their homes to wash Imam Ahmad as he had refused to utilise any of their resources, for accepting the offerings of the ruler.

200 members of the ruling family prayed with the Imam’s family at his funeral. This, a significant statistic in itself, was nothing compared to what the people would do in turning out in their droves for the funeral of this glorious bastion of the truth of Allah’s deen. Both men and women in their thousands upon thousands awaited his funeral procession. Such was the following he had accumulated due to his popular action in resisting the falsehood in defiance. Various biographers have stated the size of Imam Ahmed’s funeral procession as being one that is hard to comprehend even in today’s populous world – 800,000 men and 60,000 women are said to have attended the farewell to one of the giants of Islamic history.

During the trial of Imam Ahmad, he would often say:

“Say to the heretics, the decisive factor between us and you is the day of funerals”

Meaning the adherents to the orthodox doctrine always have a good end, for they earn the love of Allah, as well as the affection of the multitudes, and their death has a great impact on people’s lives. This is exactly what took place in this instance. One of the scholars said in relation to this that such a massive attendance at a funeral has never been equalled in the history of the Arabs, neither in the pre-Islamic era (Jahiliyah) nor in Islam. The masses were engulfed in the genuine popular emotion, while the scene of his grave became overwhelmed by such sentiments that the graveyard had to be guarded by the civil authorities.

Such a recognition is understandable, for Imam Ahmad had achieved what all those scholars who gave in could not: he had kept alive the truth and established in amongst the people. He understood well that if even the scholars, let alone the ordinary man, took the concession of lying under pressure, then when would the truth be known? His actions had upheld the truth and reinforced the deen. As `Ali ibn al-Madini said:

“Truly, Allah reinforced this Religion with Abu Bakr al-Siddiq the day of the Great Apostasy (al-Ridda), and He reinforced it with Ahmad ibn Hanbal the day of the Inquisition (al-Mihna).”

Imam Ahmad’s remarkable life offers for us a few key lessons in today’s turbulent and challenging times for the Muslim Ummah. We find that after years of learning and teaching Islam, Imam Ahmed faced a test for that which he propagated and the following summarises his resoluteness:

  • He stuck to the established sources (the Qur’an and Sunnah) as well as to their established rules of interpretation.
  • He stood up to oppression and stood courageously in defence of the truth, regardless of the magnitude of the challenges or the personal physical loss involved.
  • He remained steadfast on the truth, placing his entire trust in Allah bearing every hardship that came his way.
  • For him, protecting this deen of Islam and its sanctity meant more than his own life.

How could he not take such a stand? For after all, as a learned scholar he would have known that Allah (subhanahu wa ta’aala) commands us to stand with the truth:

“So do not fear the people, but fear Me, and do not sell My ayat for a miserly price.” [TMQ Al-Ma’idah: 44]

We are today faced with similar challenges as our Islam is tarnished, Muslims are rounded up and imprisoned under the falsified charges of terrorism, as our lands are invaded, our brothers slaughtered, tortured and humiliated as our sisters are dishonoured, then burnt alive and our resources plundered. At a time like this when oppression is most formidably displayed by rulers in the Muslim lands itself, how do we measure up as real men against Imam Ahmed? What of the scholars who readily quote Imam Ahmed’s Musnad and opinions but fail to take his example when it comes to standing up against injustice and oppression and sticking with the truth? We call on all Muslims, be they laymen or scholars, to fear none but Allah and openly proclaim the word of truth about what is going on in the world today. Such is our responsibility, for which we will be questioned by Allah, the Exalted.

Indeed we find in Imam Ahmed a real man from whom many men today can take an example; both ordinary and scholars alike.

We ask Allah to keep us all sincere and steadfast upon the truth.