Imām Aḥmad was one the greatest worshippers of his era. His son, ‘Abdullah, said that his father would perform 300 units of prayer a day. However, after his tribulation (which we will discuss later) and multiple lashes, he was ‘only’ able to perform 150 units per day – this despite being in his late seventies. As is constantly seen in the luminaries of this Ummah, Aḥmad would regularly recite great portions of the Qur’ān. In fact, he would read one-seventh of the Qur’ān daily, thereby completing it from cover to cover every week. This recitation excluded the Qur’ān portions he would read in his prayers during the day. His sleep consisted of a light nap after the ‘Ishā’ prayer, after which he would remain awake in prayer until Fajr.
One of the dimensions of his personality that undoubtedly played a significant role in eternalising his legacy was his eagerness to apply every bit of knowledge he had acquired.
Imām Aḥmad said:
ما كتبتُ حديثاً عن النبي-صلى الله عليه وسلم- إلا وقد عملتُ به
“There is not any ḥadīth that I have written down except that I first applied its teaching.”
He knew that the Prophet Muḥammad ﷺ had cupping therapy done to him and gave the therapist one dīnār, so Aḥmad too had cupping therapy and paid the therapist one dīnār. He also knew that the Prophet ﷺ hid in a cave for three days during his escape from Makkah, so Aḥmad spent three days in a cave as well.
In fact, Imām Aḥmad only started to teach at the age of forty, arguing that this was because that was the age when the Prophet received prophethood.
A student of knowledge once spent the night at Imām Aḥmad’s house. Expecting the student to wake up for the night prayer, Imām Aḥmad placed a container of water in his room so that the student could conveniently make ablution. When Aḥmad came to see him at Fajr time, he noticed that the water had not been moved from its placed, so he remarked in astonishment:
سبحان الله! رجل يطلب العلم، ولا يكون له ورد بالليل!
“SubḥānAllāh, a student of knowledge who does not pray at night?” 
It was inconceivable to him that a student of sacred knowledge would lead an average life, considering the treasures contained within the student’s heart. What use is fuel in a car if it is not driven, and what use is a ladder if it is not ascended?
Al-Hasan al-Baṣrī said:
كان الرجل إذا طلب العلم لم يلبث أن يُرى ذلك في بصره ولسانه ويده وصلاته وتخشعه وزهده
“In the past, when a person would start his journey of knowledge, the effects of his learning would begin appearing in his glances, words, hands, prayer, humility, and minimalism.”
أَحْمَد إمام فِي ثمان خصال : إمام فِي الحديث ، إمام فِي الفقه ، إمام فِي اللغة ، إمام فِي القرآن ، إمام فِي الفقر ، إمام فِي الزهد ، إمام فِي الورع ، إمام فِي السنة
“Aḥmad is an Imām in eight matters: an Imām in ḥadīth, an Imām in fiqh, an Imām in language, an Imām in the Qur’ān, an Imām in poverty, an Imām in asceticism, an Imām in warā’ (caution), and an Imām in the Sunnah.”
His consciousness of Allāh
Aḥmad never answered a question for which he was unsure of the answer. There was no conjecture from him. If he did not know, he simply replied as such, for he realised that speaking without knowledge is one of the gravest crimes in the Eyes of Allāh.
Below is a collection of some of his statements in this regard:
|“I have not heard anything in its regard”
|“I have not heard of it”
|“I do not issue rulings in it”
|“I do not have the courage to speak of it”
|“I do not give answers in this matter”
|“I do not have an answer”
|“Ask someone else”
|“Ask the scholars”
|“I fear answering this question”
|“It terrifies me”
|“It is an unclear matter”
|“It is an intricate topic”
|“It is problematic”
|“There is a difference of opinion”
|“The scholars have differed”
|“I prefer to stay safe”
|“I prefer well-being”
|“Please relieve me of this question”
His biography is an academy of lessons, the most important of which are knowing one’s limits, humility to the truth, and the courage to say “I don’t know.” This was the behaviour of Aḥmad. He may have memorised hundreds of narrations pertaining to an issue, but he declined to answer if he was uncertain of the strongest opinion.
Aḥmad was extremely troubled by the heights of fame he had reached. This was especially acute after the tribulation we have alluded to, and for which he is celebrated to this day. Towards the latter years of his life, Imām Aḥmad would say:
أريد أن أكون بشِعب بمكة حتى لا أُعرف قد بُليت بالشهرة إني أتمنى الموت صباحاً ومساءً
“I want to live in a remote valley of Makkah where no one will recognise me. I have been afflicted with fame. I desire death every morning and evening.”
It was also once said to him: “There are so many people making du’ā for you!” Upon hearing this, his eyes flooded with tears and he said:
أخاف أن يكون هذا استدراجا
“I am afraid that this is a sign of me being baited to destruction.”
Do not put it past yourself. What is fasting, charity, Qur’ān recitation, congregational prayer, or a flawless ḥijāb when tarnished with self-admiration? Even a trace of its poison is sufficient to tear down years’ worth of good deeds. Once we appreciate the insidious nature of self-admiration, we can understand the trembling fear our predecessors had of it. Worse still, we rarely own up to it, instead claiming entirely pure intentions with unrealistic statements such as “It doesn’t bother me whether I have one follower or one million.”
Ibrāhīm b. Adham once travelled to another city and entered one of its gardens. News spread that Ibrāhīm b. Adham, the Imām known for his piety and religiosity, was in town and had entered a garden. The people of the city had not seen him before, so they rushed inside and said, “Where is Ibrāhīm b. Adham?” Ibrāhīm walked around with them, saying, “Where is Ibrāhīm b. Adham?”
Ibrāhīm b. Adham also said:
ما صدق الله عبدٌ أحبَّ الشهرة
“Any person who loves fame has not been true to Allāh.”
It seems as if Allāh had planned Aḥmad’s entire life to lead him to this one moment – a point in time at which he would remain firmer than a mountain when all others crumbled to dust. This trial would cost Aḥmad 17 years of his life, and indeed any biographer who omits this event has been unforgivably deficient.
The Muslim Ummah was up until this point upon the creed of the predecessors, on the whole. This creed involved believing that Allāh speaks and that it is an attribute of His, a speech that befits His Majesty and Glory, and that the Qur’ān is part of Allāh’s speech that He delivered to the Prophet Muḥammad through the angel Jibrīl.
A group would later emerge, the Mu’tazila, who would create a new opinion that clashed with the understanding of the predecessors. The Mu’tazila posited that Allāh did not speak the Qur’ān, but that it is instead His creation.
Before this juncture in Aḥmad’s life, the Mu’tazila were a clandestine group who kept their beliefs secretive out of fear of the Caliph Hārūn al-Rashīd, who was known for being very strict with them. The Caliph followed the theology of the predecessors, as did the vast majority of the Ummah. He once even threatened to kill Bishr al-Murīsi, an advocate of the Mu’tazila creed, in the most brutal way should he be captured.
Bishr went into hiding for the remaining two decades of the Caliph’s reign, but despite being in hiding, he fervently propagated his deviant theology.
After the Caliph’s death, his son Muḥammad b. Hārūn al-Rashīd – also known as al-Amīn – ascended to the throne, but Bishr remained in hiding, fearing for his life. Only after al-Amīn passed away and power was assumed by his brother ‘Abdullāh b. Hārūn – also known as al-Ma’mūn – did Bishr feel brave enough to emerge from the darkness. The deviant group became far more strident in propagating their warped beliefs. They even managed to persuade al-Ma’mūn, the highest human authority in the Muslim lands at the time, to accept their belief that the Qur’ān was created.
Al-Ma’mūn was at first hesitant about imposing this view upon the Muslims, but he would eventually conjure the audacity to do so. He instructed Isḥāq b. Ibrāhīm, the leader of his police forces, to begin an inquisition on people’s belief about the Qur’ān. He started with seven famous scholars of Baghdad, all of whom succumbed and professed under duress to this new deviant belief.
Turmoil spread like wildfire through Iraq, onto Greater Persia, and even the Arabian Peninsula. As secret police marauded through cities, detaining and interrogating, the prisons began to fill with innocents. Under duress, the vast majority of scholars falsely testified that this new abhorrent belief about the Qur’ān being created was correct. However, two brave men stood against this torrent of politically motivated violence: Imām Aḥmad and his young student Muḥammad b. Nūḥ. On receiving the news of this pair’s dissent, al-Ma’mūn gave the order for Isḥāq to arrest them.
Imām Aḥmad said: “I would make du’ā to Allāh that He never shows me the face of al-Ma’mūn, because news was conveyed to me that he would say, ‘If I see Aḥmad, I will cut him up piece by piece.’”
Armed state security services arrived at the homes of Imām Aḥmad and Ibn Nūḥ to apprehend them. Fettered in chains, they were both being taken to al-Ma’mūn, but during the journey, the death of the Caliph was conveyed, and Aḥmad praised Allāh, believing that this would be the end of his ordeal. Yet the best laid plans of mice and men are nothing when compared to those of Allāh – Imām Aḥmad’s agony was yet to even begin.
Al-Mu’tasim (Muḥammad, son of Hārūn al-Rashīd) became the new Caliph, and he had an advisor from the Mu’tazila named Aḥmad b. Abī Du’ād, who was a staunch advocate of the belief that the Qur’ān was created. Subsequently, Aḥmad and Muḥammad b. Nūḥ were summoned to Baghdad. Again, they were arrested, and during their journey, Ibn Nūḥ started to experience the throes of death. During his final moments, he would offer Aḥmad astounding words of advice, saying:
أنت رجل يُقتدى به، وقد مدَّ الخلق أعناقهم إليك لما يكون منك؛ فاتقِ الله واثبت لأمر الله
“You are a man who is followed. All of creation have craned their necks to see what you shall do. So fear Allāh and remain patient with whatever Allāh sends your way.”
Muḥammad b. Nūḥ passed away, leaving Aḥmad alone to endure the dark trials ahead of him.
Aḥmad b. Abī Du’ād advised al-Mu’tasim to interrogate Imām Aḥmad. The Caliph agreed and ordered that the esteemed scholar, who was already unwell, was to be imprisoned in Baghdad during the sacred month of Ramaḍān. There in the darkness of the dungeon he was to remain for a further two and a half years. We can only imagine what a prison cell in medieval Arabia was like. The cold hard stone floors caged by suffocating walls, with the prisoner abandoned and shackled by his arms to his feet. The only light was a glimmer of candlelight as a guard walks past. Sunlight and the morning chorus both a distant long-lost memory.
Aḥmad’s uncle Isḥāq b. Ḥanbal was finally able to intercede for him with the chief of police and his namesake, Isḥāq b. Ibrāhīm. The uncle of Aḥmad asked for due process – that Aḥmad be given the opportunity to make his case before the Caliph by debating with the scholars of the Mu’tazila. The chief of police obliged and sought permission from the Caliph.
Al-Mu’tasim then summoned Aḥmad. Weighed down by his heavy chains, Aḥmad was barely able to walk, falling several times due to exhaustion from the burdensome chains. Not a single person came to his aid. The man who once willingly walked barefoot to serve his Lord was now dragging himself to the Caliph’s court with the little energy he could muster. Aḥmad was placed overnight in a dark prison cell with no candlelight. In his heavy shackles, the great Imām and now pious prisoner prayed to Allāh for deliverance.
The next day, Aḥmad was brought before al-Mu’tasim, Aḥmad b. Abī Du’ād, military leaders, and the courtiers of the Caliph. Aḥmad then requested permission to speak. After he completed his speech, al-Mu’tasim instructed his scholars to rebut Imām Aḥmad. After Aḥmad’s every argument against them, they would turn to al-Mu’tasim and say, “He is an innovator!” “He is astray and leads others astray!” “He is accusing you of disbelief!” It was becoming apparent to al-Mu’tasim that Aḥmad was overcoming them in debate, and that his scholars were desperately resorting to insults and accusations. This is often the case with disingenuous interlocuters who lose the argument – they resort to playing the man rather than the ball.
Aḥmad would turn to al-Mu’tasim and say: “Leader of the believers, they have not cited anything from the Qur’ān and Sunnah.” He repeated this after each of their arguments, making it clear that they lacked evidence for their false beliefs. This infuriated Aḥmad b. Abī Du’ād who said, “Are your opinions taken only from the Qur’ān and Sunnah?!” to which Aḥmad, confirming that he has the correct creed, replied:
وهل يقوم الإسلام إلا بكتاب الله وسنة رسوله صلى الله عليه وسلم؟
“Can Islām stand on anything but the Qur’ān and Sunnah?”
Al-Mu’tasim’s scholars urged him to execute Aḥmad, claiming that he was a heretic. However, al-Mu’tasim was hopeful that Aḥmad would accept his beliefs, having recognised the status of Aḥmad and the importance of having a man like him by his side.
The debate lasted for three days, with Aḥmad in his lonely, isolated, and imprisoned state. The Imām fasted continuously, only eating the minimum to keep him alive. All the while, Aḥmad b. Abī Du’ād attempted to torment the Imām by taunting him with impending torture from the Caliph.
By the end of the debate, the Caliph realised that Aḥmad’s views were not going to change, so he instructed his men to send him back to prison. Al-Mu’tasim then ordered the apparatus for torture to be prepared and for the punishment to begin. Between each round of torture, they would ask Aḥmad, “What do you say with regards to the Qur’ān?” to which he would simply reply, “It is the speech of Allāh.” The torturers responded with another ferocious round of lashing, causing him to fall unconscious.
During a moment when Aḥmad was conscious, al-Mu’tasim said to him, “Aḥmad, woe to you, you are killing yourself! Woe to you, accept what I say and I will personally unshackle you!” But Aḥmad did not reply, accepting the decree of Allāh and surrendering only to Him. Enraged by Aḥmad’s courage, al-Mu’tasim instructed his men to continue the lashes and screamed:
أوجع قطع الله يدك! أوجع!
“Hurt him, may Allāh sever your hand! Hurt him!”
Again, the intensity of the torment caused Aḥmad to lose consciousness.
The guards then lifted the Imām’s limp body and threw it onto a straw mat. He landed on his face, and the guards proceeded to stamp on his battered, bruised, and bloodied body. At this point, al-Mu’tasim was anxious that his security personnel may have killed the highly revered Imām. This terrified al-Mu’tasim, due to the potential revolt he might witness from the masses. Despite the constant whisperings of Aḥmad b. Abī Du’ād, the Caliph instructed that Imām Aḥmad be released immediately. Reflecting on this moment, Imām Aḥmad said, “I was completely out of my senses, when all of a sudden, I woke up within a room and the chains had been taken off me.”
Al-Mu’tasim had clothed the highly respected Imām with expensive royal attire and set him free on the back of an animal. When Aḥmad arrived home, he took off all of the attire, sold it, and gave its entire value in charity.
Al-Mu’tasim became consumed with regret for what he had done to Aḥmad, so he would send men to Aḥmad on a daily basis to check his recuperation. After some passage of time, and by the grace of Allāh, Aḥmad’s body had recovered from his injuries, so he was able to pray in the Masjid once again with the Muslims. A semblance of normality returned as he continued his teaching, until al-Mu’tasim passed away.
Al-Mu’tasim’s son, al-Wāthiq, assumed the Caliphate. This marked a new chapter of suffering in Aḥmad’s life. Al-Wāthiq was a fierce proponent of this new creed, and with the infamous Aḥmad b. Abī Du’ād as his advisor, al-Wāthiq was even more committed than his predecessors. He tortured and imprisoned many on account of this, causing immense suffering in Baghdad.
During this period, a letter was conveyed to Imām Aḥmad from Isḥāq b. Ibrāhīm (the chief of police) stating, “The leader of the believers has made mention of your name.” Aḥmad understood exactly what this meant, so he had no choice but to go into hiding. This self-imposed exile was severe on Aḥmad; he did not visit anyone nor receive any visitors. Hardest for him, however, was not being able to pray in the Masjid. This awful situation persisted until al-Wāthiq passed away.
After al-Wāthiq came al-Mutawakkil, who was a Sunni and upon the way of the righteous predecessors. Imām Aḥmad was, by the grace of Allāh, able to emerge from hiding. The great trial had finally ended. The Sunnah was victorious, and the internationally acclaimed hero was Imām Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal. Indeed, his name was not only celebrated across the Muslim world but remains synonymous with struggle and courage more than a millennium later, and quite possibly until the Final Trumpet is blown.
Mahanna b. Yaḥya said:
“When Aḥmad was set free, I saw Ya’qūb b. Ibrāhīm al-Zuhri kissing his forehead and face and saw Sulaymān b. Dāwūd kissing his forehead as well.”
Al-Mutawakkil also sent a sum of money to him, which Aḥmad donated entirely to the poor, along with the bag in which the money was sent in. Al-Mutawakkil also invited Aḥmad to visit him, but Aḥmad was not inclined to do so and told him that he was unwell. The Caliph insisted, so Aḥmad made his way to him in the midst of a huge entourage sent by the Caliph. There, on a daily basis, a huge table spread with the finest foods were offered to the feted Imām. However, the great ascetic and defender of the Sunnah did not even take a glance at it.
Bishr al-Ḥarith said:
لولا هذا الرجل –يعني: الإمام أحمد- لكان العار علينا إلى يوم القيامة
“If it was not for this man, shame would have been upon us until the Day of Judgement.”
Abū Bakr al-Ashram said:
كان أصحابنا يرون مقام أبي عبد الله في المحنة كمقام أبي بكر الصديق رضي الله عنه في الردة
“Our companions saw the station of Imām Aḥmad during the trial as being the same as Abū Bakr’s trial during the (wars of) apostasy.”
 Ṣafwah al-Ṣafwah
 Siyar A’lām al-Nubalā, by Al-Dhahabī
 Siyar A’lām al-Nubalā
 Al-Zuhd, by Ibn al-Mubārak
 Siyar A’lām al-Nubalā