The Life of Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal

Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal was born in 164 AH in Baghdad. He studied under the great Imam Shafii as well as one of the two greatest students of Imam Abu Hanifa – Qadhi Abu Yusuf. May Allah be pleased with them all. It was narrated he had memorised 1 million Ahadeeth and was known, not only for Fiqh and Hadith, but also exceptional Adab (manners).

The imam was highly praised by his teacher, Imam Shafii (may Allah be pleased with him) who Imam Ahmad and many others considered to be the mujadid (reviver) of the second Islamic century.

Imam Shafii said, 

“I left Baghdad and I did not leave behind me someone more pious, cautious (regarding doubtful matters), understanding (in fiqh) and knowledgable than Ahmad.”

Imam Shafii said,

“Imam Ahmad is an authority in 8 fields – Hadith, Fiqh, Language, Quran, Faqr (poverty), Zuhd (asceticism), Wara (being cautious) and the Sunnah”.

Despite all of the above this, he is most well remembered and recognised for his standing in Al-Mihna (the trials) where was amongst the only scholars who openly defended the religion against the Caliph at the time.

Al-Mihna (The Trials)

Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal was in Baghdad during the time of the Abbasid Caliph al-Ma’mun, who reigned from 813-833. Although al-Ma’mun was vital to the establishment of Baghdad as an intellectual center, he was heavily influenced by a group known as the Mu’tazila. Mu’tazili philosophy championed the role of rationalism in all aspects of life, including theology. Thus, instead of relying on the Quran and Sunnah to understand God, they relied on philosophical techniques first developed by the Ancient Greeks. Chief among their beliefs was that the Quran was a created book, as opposed to the un-created literal word of Allah. Al-Ma’mun believed in the Mu’tazili line of thought, and sought to impose this new and dangerous belief system on everyone in his empire – including the scholars. While many scholars pretended to subscribe to Mu’tazili ideas in order to avoid persecution, Imam Ahmad refused to compromise his beliefs. Al-Ma’mun instituted an inquisition known as the Mihna. Any scholars who refused to accept Mu’tazili ideas was severely persecuted and punished. Imam Ahmad, as the most famous scholar of Baghdad, was brought before al-Ma’mun and ordered to abandon his traditional Islamic beliefs about theology. When he refused, he was tortured and imprisoned. His treatment at the hands of the political authority was extremely severe. People who witnessed the torture commented that even an elephant could not have handled the treatment that Imam Ahmad was subject to. Despite all of this, Imam Ahmad held to traditional Islamic beliefs, and thus served as an inspiration for Muslims throughout the empire. His trials set the precedent that Muslims do not give up their beliefs regardless what the political authority imposes on them. In the end, Imam Ahmad outlived al-Ma’mun and his successors until the Caliph al-Mutawakkil ascended in 847 and ended the Mihna. Imam Ahmad was again free to teach the people of Baghdad and write. During this time, he wrote his famous Musnad Ahmad ibn Hanbal, one of the largest available collections of hadith that served as the basis of his school of legal thought, the Hanbali Madhab. To read more on Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal’s life go to: