Ahmad ibn Hanbal al-Shaybani was born in Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate, in 778. The relatively new city was fast becoming a centre for scholarship of all forms. Imam Ahmad had numerous opportunities to learn and expand his intellectual horizons. By the time he was 10 years old, he had memorised the entire Quran and began studying the traditions of Rasulullah (sallallahu alayhi wasallam), the hadith. He is said to have known up to a million narrations, mixed between sahih (authentic) and daif Ahadith and he was wable to distinguish them from each other.
Scholars say that Imam Ahmad was a carbon copy of Rasulullah (sallallahu alayh wasallam). This is what he is known for. Financially he was a poor person, born into poverty, lived like that and passed away as a poor person. But he was poor in finance, not in heart and soul.
Imam Ahmad lost his father at a very young age, like Imam Shafi’i. So in addition to spending his time studying fiqh and hadith under some of Baghdad’s greatest scholars, he also worked in a post office to help support his family. He was able to afford studying under one of Imam Abu Hanifa’s foremost students, Abu Yusuf. He learned the basics of fiqh such as ijtihad (intellectual decision making), and qiyas (analogical deduction).
After becoming proficient in the Hanafi Madhab, Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal began to study Hadith under some of the greatest Hadith scholars of Baghdad, including Haitham ibn Bishr. He was so eager to expand his knowledge of the sayings and doings of Rasulullah (sallallahu alayhi wasallam) that he would regularly be waiting after fajr outside of the homes of his teachers, ready to start that day’s lesson.
After studying in Baghdad, he went on to study in Makkah, Madinah, Yemen, and Syria. During this time, he even met Imam al-Shafi’i in Makkah. Imam Shafi’i helped the young Imam move beyond memorization of hadith and fiqh to being able to also understand the principles behind them. This collaboration between two of the four great imams shows clearly that the schools of Islamic law are not opposed to each other, but rather work hand in hand. In fact, when Imam al-Shafi’i left Baghdad, he was recorded as having said, “I am leaving Baghdad when there is none more pious, nor a greater jurist than Ahmad ibn Hanbal.”
When Imam Ahmad was 40 years old, in 820, his mentor – Imam al-Shafi’i passed away. At this point, Imam Ahmad began to teach hadith and fiqh to the people of Baghdad. Students would gather to his lectures. Despite being in the capital of the Muslim world, Baghdad, Imam Ahmad refused to be attracted to a life of luxury and wealth. He continued to live on very humble means.
Imam Ahmad’s legacy goes beyond the establishment of the Hanbali madhab, but includes the preservation of core Islamic beliefs against political oppression. He went through the trail called Khalqul Quraan the creation of the Quraan. A group of people, the Mu’tazili, were adamant in propagating that the Quraan is not the word of Allah but the creation of Allah, because speech is created and came after Allah therefore the Quraan is speech, created like him. By this they meant that it can err because the creation of Allah makes mistakes.
Al-Ma’mun, the Khalifah of the time wanted to assert this religious authority by pressuring scholars to adopt the view that the Qur’an was created rather than uncreated. After three years, Al – Ma’mun stood up on this rampage and said everybody must accept it. The Khalifah ordered that others be put in chains and brought as prisoners to Baghdad. Imam Ahmad was among them.
On his way through the dessert, Imam Ahmad made a dua. He asked Allah to not let him meet Ma’mun. On his way he encountered a Bedouin who encouraged him to stay strong. The second day they came to him and said he has to be taken back, his sentence has been suspended because the Khalifah had gotten sick and died. Al – Mu’tasim, his brother took over. Imam Ahmad was brought into chains before the Khalifah. At first Al – Mu’tasim tried to get Imam Ahmad to yield. But Imam Ahmad said, “O Ameerul Mu’mineen,” acknowledging his leadership, “Give me evidence from the Quraan that the Quraan is created. I cannot find any evidence.”
Al – Mu’tasim couldn’t find anything. He commanded that Imam Ahmad to be taken to the prison. On the second day that he was taken out Ahmad ibn Abu Du’ad and his scholars were around there and said they had evidence from the Quraan that the Quraan is created. Imam Ahmad asked for it. He said, “Allah says: ‘We have sent the Quraan down in the Arabic language.’” Imam Ahmad looked at him and said, “Allah did not say ‘We have created the Quraan in the Arabic language’. He said ‘We have sent down the Quraan in the Arabic language’.” This does not mean it’s created. They put him back in the prison.
Days passed and Al – Mu’tasim tried to plea with him to get him to yield, he’d let him go if he agreed with them. Imam Ahmad was determined and maintained he would not. “This is Deen, it is not my religion. It is the religion of Allah.” They beat him. The doctor said he saw his back, “There were like caves in his back.” They saw him a few days after the whipping and he said some words they couldn’t understand. It later came to be understood that he was asking Allah to not let his awrah be shown. The person who related this said he saw his pants somehow make their way up and they were tight on his body and never fell.
A man came to him and begged him to yield – the people couldn’t bear to see him this way. He asked the man, “Are you a student of knowledge?” The man said he was. Imam Ahmad told him to look outside the small door of the prison. The man did. Imam asked him what he saw. He said, “I see people I cannot count in numbers. Thousands and thousands of people waiting outside. They are carrying feathered pens and writing material.” Imam Ahmad said to him, “They are students of knowledge. They are waiting for what I have to say. They will write what I say and for the generations to come in the future, this is what the knowledge will be. I am the last standing on this. I must stand firm. They are waiting for my word and they are going to take it.”
Imam Ahmad outlived al-Ma’mun and his successors until the Khalif al-Mutawakkil ascended in 847 and ended the rampage. Imam Ahmad was again free to teach the people of Baghdad and write. During this time, he wrote his famous Musnad Ahmad ibn Hanbal, a collection of hadith that served as the basis of his school of legal thought, the Hanbali Madhab. Imam Ahmad passed away in Baghdad in 855.