Ahmad b. Muhammad Ibn Hanbal was a renowned traditionist, theologian, and jurist who was born in Baghdad where he spent most of his life studying and teaching. As a young man, he traveled widely in connection with his studies, most especially in the cities of Kufa and Basra in Iraq and Mecca and Medina in Arabia. He made the pilgrimage to Mecca five times. Ibn Hanbal had inherited a modest estate and was able to spend most of his time in study. He was not, in any formal sense, a teacher or part of a school, but as his reputation for knowledge grew, he was widely consulted as an expert on all matters of law and religion. As a scholar, Ibn Hanbal was one of the foremost members of a group called the traditionalists, or ahl al-hadith. The traditionists believed that as a source of religious knowledge, the sunna, or practice of the Prophet and the early community of Muslims, was second only to the Qur_an and that the sunna could be ascertained through a study of traditions, or hadith.
After the death of the Prophet, the members of the early community transmitted knowledge of the sunna orally and in anecdotal form, but as time went on, and the first few generations of Muslims died off, remembering and recording the sunna became an important scholarly task. Hadith collections provide the documentation of the sunna. Each hadith consists of a text (matn) preceded by a chain of its oral transmitters (isnad), beginning with the most recent. The earliest transmitter is usually a relative of the Prophet, one of his close associates, his Companions, or someone who knew one or more of his Companions. Ibn Hanbal’s collection, his Musnad, is among the most esteemed of the Sunni hadith collections.
By Ibn Hanbal’s day, there were thousands of hadiths in circulation, some patently false, others less obviously so. The traditionists separated the genuine from the false, and then compiled and presented the genuine traditions in an orderly fashion. This required knowledge about the reliability of the people included in isnads, as well as about the subject matter of each matn. Ibn Hanbal’s knowledge of traditions was prodigious, and traditionists traveled to Baghdad from other parts of the Muslim world specifically to study with him. His Musnad contains between twenty-seven and twenty-eight thousand traditions, whereas the standard collections of Sunni hadith, the “Six Books” contain fewer than half that number.
Further, unlike these somewhat later collections, the Musnad is arranged according to the name of the initial transmitter rather than according to subject matter. Ibn Hanbal’s activity was not limited to teaching and answering questions about hadith. In theology, the traditionists were ranged against the “rationalists,” and here, too, Ibn Hanbal was preeminent among the traditionists. They avoided rational speculation and held that belief in the divine nature of the text of the Qur_an and obedience to its tenets as practiced by the Prophet were the goals of the true believer. The rationalists speculated about the nature of God, His qualities, and His relationship to the created world. The group of rationalists who engaged in this kind of speculative theology during Ibn Hanbal’s lifetime were the Mu_tazilites. A particular point of disagreement between the traditionists and the Mu_tazilites was on the nature of the Qur_an. The Mu_tazilites held that God had created it in time; the traditionists held that it was the uncreated word of God. In 833, shortly before his death, the caliph Ma_mun adopted a policy of demanding that prominent religious figures publicly embrace the doctrine of the created Qur_an. Ibn Hanbal refused to do this, and was imprisoned and tortured. Although the next two caliphs continued Ma_mun’s policy, Ibn Hanbal was released from prison after two years. However, he did not resume teaching publicly until 847 when a new caliph finally abandoned the Mu_tazilite doctrine and reinstated traditionist Sunnism. In jurisprudence too, the traditionists—again with Ibn Hanbal preeminent among them—were ranged against the rationalists. The traditionists wished all juridical problems to be solved by reference to the sunna as expressed through traditions. The rationalists, on the other hand, preferred to base their decisions on thinking through a problem rather than finding a solution in a tradition. The rationalists quoted the opinions of their teachers and colleagues as authoritative; the traditionists thought they thereby placed human reasoning above the divine guidance found in the Qur_an and the
sunna. Although the practical results of the rationalist jurists were not very different from those of the traditionist jurists, the methodological differences between the two groups were fiercely debated.
At his death, Ibn Hanbal was widely mourned. His erudition, personal piety, and moral fortitude had made him a revered and famous scholar, and his tomb in Baghdad was much visited until it was destroyed by flood in the fourteenth century. His disciples carried on his teaching. A number of them, including his sons Salih (d. 879/880) and _Abdallah (d. 903), compiled collections of his masa_il, the responses he gave to questions of ritual, law, and dogma put to him by colleagues and students. Ibn Hanbal’s responses are important both for their specific content and for the traditionalists method they illustrate. The Hanbalite legal school (or rite) of Sunni Islam evolved on the basis of the interpretation of these responses by successive generations of Hanbalite scholars. His son _Abdallah was also responsible for collecting, editing, and commenting upon his father’s Musnad. The Musnad is Ibn Hanbal’s best-known work. Most of his other works have not survived intact although they are often quoted by later scholars, and very little if anything by him is available in English.