It is with sweet sorrow that we begin the story of the final Imām from the great quartet. A vessel of knowledge, a defender of the Sunnah, an exemplar of a worshipper, and – for those who saw him – a reminder of how the companions of the Prophet Muḥammad ﷺ were; this is precisely who Imām Aḥmad was. Indeed, many have rose to fame due to their Islamic knowledge, but the likes of Aḥmad in human history are extremely rare. It was in the year 164AH in the city of Baghdad when Allāh gifted the Ummah of Islām with this marvel of a human being and the fourth of the four Imāms chronologically. It truly was as if he had been plucked from a previous generation for a particular purpose.
His name is Aḥmad, son of Muḥammad, son of Ḥanbal, and he went by the shortened version of Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal. His nickname was Abū ‘Abdullāh, and he was a Shaybānī (from the tribe of Shaybān, an Arab ‘Adnāni tribe). Thus, his ancestry meets with that of the Prophet Muḥammad ﷺ at Nazār b. Ma’ad b. ‘Adnān.
The son of a soldier, Imām Aḥmad was orphaned as a child after his father fell on the battlefield in his thirties. This early setback, as tragic as it was, did not condemn Aḥmad to a life of excuses and underachievement. Rather, it only spurred his mother, Ṣafiyya b. Maymūna, to raise a legend of Islamic history. The young widow dedicated her life to raising her son and preparing a light for the Ummah that still shines bright today.
Islām has enjoyed somewhat of a renaissance in recent times. Young people are buying books, watching videos online, signing up to lectures, attending seminars, and so on. However, what some – perhaps many – miss is one key ingredient to learning: spending time with scholars, learning from their manners and etiquettes, a quality that cannot be learned from reading even thousands of books.
Perhaps the shared childhood experiences of Imām al-Shāfi’ī and Imām Aḥmad played a part in the strong bond that grew between them and the resultant teacher-student relationship that flourished formidably. We ask Allāh to grant the mothers of both Imāms, together with all the mothers who have sacrificed and set the same vision for their children, the highest stations in Paradise.
Aḥmad’s mother raised him to be conscious of Allāh, and for this consciousness to be above that of any mortal. The fruits of this clearly appeared later in his life, as we shall find out.
Ibrāhīm b. Shammās said:
كنت أعرف أحمد بن حنبل وهو غلام ، وهو يحي الليل
“I knew Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal when he was a boy, and he would spend the night in prayer.”
From a young age, it was as if Imām Aḥmad was being prepared for the critical event that was ahead of him; one that would cost him many years of his life in defence of the Sunnah.
His pursuit of knowledge
With his mother’s encouragement, the young Imām Aḥmad memorised the Qur’ān in his early years. By the age of 15, he decided he would dedicate his life to the pursuit of Islamic knowledge.
One of his first teachers was Imām Abū Yūsuf, who was one of the two primary students of Imām Abū Ḥanīfa. Imām Abū Yūsuf was a scholar from the school of ra’i. With the passage of time, however, Imām Aḥmad found himself inclining towards the school of ḥadīth.
Accordingly, he attended the study circle of ḥadīth led by Abū Bakr b. ‘Ayyāsh. As the study circle was held directly after Fajr, Imām Aḥmad would wake up hours before dawn in order to arrive early and thereby enjoy close proximity to the teacher. He would wake up so early that his mother, out of concern for her son’s wellbeing when leaving during the dark hours of the night, would hold onto his clothes urging him to at least wait until the call to prayer was made.
Ḥushaym b. Bashīr was another ḥadīth teacher of Imām Aḥmad, who said:
حفظت كل شيء سمعته من هشيم وهشيم حي قبل موته
“I memorised everything I heard from Ḥushaym during his lifetime.”
Aḥmad spent four years learning from Ḥushaym, but after the teacher passed away, a new chapter in our young scholar’s life began: one of relentless travel for knowledge. Within days of Ḥushaym’s death, Aḥmad gathered his belongings and left for Baghdad to seek knowledge of ḥadīth.
His travel companion on this quest was a life-long friend and study mate, Yaḥya b. Ma’īn. The two seekers of knowledge also travelled to Kūfa. During their stay, Aḥmad was in such financial strain that he used a piece of masonry as a pillow. Compare this to our situation today, where we seek knowledge in air-conditioned rooms, having slept in five-star hotels and eaten a breakfast that only a few centuries earlier a king would have considered extravagant. The dedicated one, however, does not await the for the ideal circumstances to arrive, but instead actively engineers the necessary circumstances for his growth and success.
After Kūfa, the pair travelled to the cities of Basra and Wāsit, in Iraq.
Another of Aḥmad’s teachers was Yazīd b. Hārūn. Although Yazīd had a large congregation attend his study circle, after only a few conversations with Aḥmad, Yazīd recognised the jewel who sat before him. He decided that the rightful place for a student with knowledge and piety of this magnitude was not at the back of class, but beside the teacher.
Aḥmad’s pursuit of knowledge took him to Morocco, Algeria, Makkah, Madīnah, Yemen, and Persia, to name but a few places. However, it was in Makkah where he would finally meet Imām al-Shāfi’ī, from whom he benefited enormously. Aḥmad also made every effort to meet Imām Mālik, but it was not decreed for him.
In the year 198AH, Imām Aḥmad and his companion Yaḥya b. Ma’īn intended to journey to Makkah for Ḥajj, and then from Makkah to Yemen to study under ‘Abd al-Razzāq. Amazingly, as they were making ṭawāf around the Ka’ba, they came across ‘Abd al-Razzāq himself. They greeted one another, and ‘Abd al-Razzāq told Aḥmad that he had heard such great things about him. Yaḥya b. Ma’īn saw this as a wonderful opportunity to study from ‘Abd al-Razzāq whilst he was in Makkah, and that they had been spared the arduous journey to Yemen. However, Aḥmad said to Yaḥya:
ما كنت لأفسد نيتي بما تقول ؛ نمضي ونسمع منه
“I will never alter my intention according to what you say. We will travel to Yemen and take from his knowledge there.”
After their Ḥajj was completed, the duo travelled to Yemen to study under the supervision of ‘Abd al-Razzāq. During their journey, Aḥmad’s finances ran dry. Undeterred and unphased by his scholarly status, Aḥmad found work carrying other people’s luggage. This refusal to be the lower hand and the need to be self-sufficient was a consistent quality of Aḥmad’s personality. Indeed, his poverty reached such an extreme that he needed to pawn his shoes to a baker in return for some bread.
The Messenger of Allāh ﷺ said: “No doubt, it is preferable that you gather a bundle of wood and carry it on your back (to earn your living) than ask somebody who may give (you what you need) or not.”
Aḥmad’s feet became sore from travelling the world in his quest to quench his thirst for the words of the Messenger. Aḥmad compiled his now famous work, the Musnad, which contained 40,000 narrations that he had learned personally from his teachers around the globe. These narrations had been distilled from a larger corpus of 750,000 ḥadīth he had collected.
Imām Ibn al-Jawzi said:
وقد طاف الدنيا مرتين حتى حصله
“He travelled the world twice until he compiled his Musnad.”
Ibrāhīm al-Ḥarbi said:
رأيت أحمد بن حنبل كأن الله قد جمع له علم الأولين والآخرين من كل صنف، يقول ما شاء ويمسك ما شاء
“I saw Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal. It was as if Allāh had gathered for him knowledge of each kind from the first and last of people, speaking as he wishes and withholding as he wishes.”
Abū Zur’a al-Rāzī said:
كان أَحْمَد يحفظ ألف ألف
Imām al-Shāfi’ī said:
خرجت من بغداد وما خلفت بها أحدا أورع ولا أتقى ولا أفقه من أحمد بن حنبل
“When I left Baghdad, I did not leave behind me anyone who was more religiously cautious, pious, and scholarly than Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal.”
Imām Aḥmad was so occupied with the pursuit of knowledge that he only married after returning from his travels, at the age of 40.
His refusal to accept favours
Imām Aḥmad was a dignified man who was vehemently against receiving any favours of any kind from anyone. He refused to accept loans or gifts from anyone, whether from a friend, teacher, or a Muslim leader. This laudable quality, however, pushed him to the limits of human endurance throughout his life.
One of Aḥmad’s teachers, Yazīd b. Hārūn, would regularly support his students financially. Most of his students would gladly accept this assistance, including the likes of Yaḥya b. Ma’īn and Abū Muslim Al-Mustamli. Imām Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal, on the other hand, was the only student who refused to accept even a dirham.
Aḥmad’s livelihood was sourced entirely from the rental income of a property he had inherited from his father. For this reason, he was perpetually in financial hardship. He had performed the Ḥajj five times, but three of these were done on foot due to his poverty. According to his own account, he spent in one of these trips only 30 dirhams.
‘Alī b. al-Jahm said:
“I had a neighbour who pulled out a manuscript and said: ‘Do you know whose handwriting this is?’ We said: ‘Yes, it is that of Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal. How did you get it?’ He said: ‘We were in Makkah, studying under Sufyān b. ‘Uyayna. Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal joined us for a while, but then disappeared, so we made our way to his house to enquire about him. We entered his house and he was wearing two pieces of clothing. We said: ‘Father of ‘Abdullāh, what happened?’ He said: ‘My clothes were stolen.’ I said: ‘I have some money, so take it as a loan or gift.’ Aḥmad refused. I said: ‘Write some knowledge for me and I will pay you.’ Aḥmad accepted. So I took out a dīnār of gold, but again, Aḥmad refused. He said: ‘You buy it, then bring me the change.’ So I did that. Then I brought a pen and paper and he wrote for me, so this is his handwriting.’”
You may be wondering why Imām Aḥmad was so committed to self-sufficiency. Undoubtedly, it was narrations like that of ‘Auf b. Mālik. ‘Auf was a Companion of the Prophet who remembered the day when he, along with 9 or so others, pledged allegiance to the Prophet ﷺ. The Companions had asked the Prophet what the conditions of this pledge will be, to which he replied:
عَلَى أَنْ تَعْبُدُوا اللهَ وَلاَ تُشْرِكُوا بِهِ شَيْئًا، وَالصَّلَوَاتِ الخَمْسِ وَتُطِيعُوا الله» وأَسَرَّ كَلِمَةً خَفِيفَةً «وَلاَ تَسْألُوا النَّاسَ شَيْئًا»
“That you worship Allāh without associating any partners in Him, pray five times, and obey Allāh.”
Then the Prophet lowered his voice and mentioned another clause discreetly, saying, “And that you do not ask people for anything.”
فَلَقَدْ رَأيْتُ بَعْضَ أُولئِكَ النَّفَرِ يَسْقُطُ سَوطُ أحَدِهِمْ فَمَا يَسأَلُ أحَدًا يُنَاوِلُهُ إيّاهُ
“After this, I saw some of the Companions not asking anyone for help even to pick up their whip if it had fallen from their hands.”
His behaviour with people
Aḥmad was, by his nature, incredibly compassionate to the poor. Despite his humble financial status, he was the most generous of people with what little he possessed. He addressed people with their favourite nicknames and was completely absorbed by preparation for the Hereafter.
Abū Dāwūd said:
كانت مجالس أحمد مجالس آخرة، لا يُذكر فيها شيء من أمر الدنيا، وما رأيت أحمد بن حنبل ذكر الدنيا قَطُّ
“The gatherings of Aḥmad were gatherings of the hereafter. No matters of dunya would be discussed. In fact, I have never seen Aḥmad make mention of the dunya at all.”
The gatherings of Aḥmad’s study circles were thronging with people, but the interest of the majority of attendees was in his sublime manners. Ismā’īl b. ‘Ulayya said:
كان يجتمع في مجلس أحمد نحو خمسة آلاف – أو يزيدون، نحو خمسمائة – يكتبون، والباقون يتعلمون منه حسن الأدب والسمت
“There were around 5000 students or more sitting in Aḥmad’s classes, 500 of whom were writing, whilst the remainder were learning from his manners.”
Abū Ja’far said:
“Aḥmad was the shyest of people and the most generous. He was the best of companions and possessed the loftiest of manners. He would frequently look at the ground and would only ever be heard revising ḥadīth with someone or remembering the righteous people. His character was one of gravitas, composure, and beautiful choice of words. If anyone met him, he would greet them with delight and attention. He would intensely humble himself to the scholars, and they revered him.”
The great scholar Yaḥya b. Ma’īn, Aḥmad’s lifelong friend and companion, said:
ما رأيت خيرًا من أَحمد بن حنبل، ما افتخر علينا بالعربية قط ولا ذكرها
“I have never seen anyone greater than Aḥmad. Never did he see himself as being above us because he was an Arab, and he never once brought it up.”
When Aḥmad was asked about whether or not he was an Arab, he said:
نحن قوم مساكين
“We are a people to be pitied.”
‘Alī b. Abī Fazāra said:
“My mother suffered from paralysis for around twenty years. She once said to me: ‘Go to Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal and ask him to make du’ā for me.’ So I made my way to his house and knocked on his door. He said: ‘Who is it?’ I said: ‘A member of your locality. My mother is an old and disabled woman and has asked me to request your du’ā for her.’ I heard him mumble words of anger, saying:
نحن أحوج أن تدعو الله لنا
“I am in more need for her du’ā than she is of mine!”
I was about to make my way back home when Imām Aḥmad’s door suddenly opened. It was an old woman, and she said: ‘Were you the one who just spoke to Abū ‘Abdullāh?’ I said: ‘Yes.’ She said: ‘I just left him as he was making du’ā for her.’ I rushed home and knocked on my mother’s front door. The door opened, and it was my mother standing on her own two feet. She said:
قد وهَب اللهُ لي العافية
“Allāh has gifted me with wellbeing.”
How different is this to the one who sits in public gatherings, expecting his hands to be kissed by every student and finding it completely acceptable that baraka is sought from his clothes and hair? The people of true sincerity do not consider any aspect of themselves to be greater than others – not in their possessions, nor their du’ā, nor anything else.
Imām Aḥmad would ask his sons to take note of the names of the people who came to see him, in order to ensure that he would return the visit. He also once heard someone say to him, “May Allāh reward you for everything that you have done for Islām,” to which he responded:
بل جزى الله الإسلام عني خيرا، من أنا؟ وما أنا؟
“Rather, may Allāh reward Islām for what it has done for me! Who am I? What am I?”
This was the way of the scholars – the greater their knowledge of Allāh and His Majesty, the greater their appreciation of themselves and their weakness.
An amusing incident involving Imām Aḥmad uncovers yet another side to his forgiving, forbearing, and easy-going personality. Imām Aḥmad and Yaḥya b. Ma’īn were once praying in a Masjid when a storyteller stood up. He said: “Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal and Yaḥya b. Ma’īn narrated to me that ‘Abd al-Razzāq narrated that Ma’mar narrated that Qatāda narrated that Anas narrated that the Prophet narrated: “Whoever says lā ilāha illa Allāh, Allāh creates a bird for each word, its beak made from gold and its feathers from corals.” The storyteller continued relaying a twenty-page-long fabricated narration.
Aḥmad and Yaḥya looked at each other with incredulity and said to one another, “This is the first time we have heard this narration!” They both remained quiet until the storyteller finished his story. Then Yaḥya called for him, so the storyteller made his way to Yaḥya thinking that he would receive some money for his great story. Yaḥya asked the storyteller: “Who narrated that story to you?” He said: “Aḥmad and Yaḥya.” Yaḥya said: “Well, I am Yaḥya and this is Aḥmad, and neither of us have ever heard of this story of yours!” The man said: “You know, I used to hear that Yaḥya b. Ma’īn was a fool, but now I am certain of how foolish he is. Do you think you and him are the only Yaḥya b. Ma’īn and Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal in this world? I have taken knowledge from seventeen different Yaḥya b. Ma’īns and Aḥmad Ibn Ḥanbals!’ Upon hearing this, Aḥmad covered his face with his clothes and said to Yaḥya: ‘Just leave him be,’ leaving the man to scornfully walk away.
 Manāqib Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal, Ibn al-Jawzi
 Despite Abū Yūsuf being a scholar of Ḥadīth as well
 Manāqib Aḥmad, Ibn al-Jawzi
 Ṣayd Al-Khāṭir, Ibn al-Jawzi
 Manāqib Aḥmad, Ibn al-Jawzi
 I’lām al-Muwaqqi’īn
 This includes the repeated narrations, as well as the statements of the Companions and Tābi’īn, as mentioned by Al-Dhahabī. The authentic prophetic narrations are, in reality, far less than this in number. Some have stated them to be around the 10,000 mark, as mentioned by Imām al-Nawawi, whilst others have posited that they are less.
 Tārīkh Dimashq, Ibn ‘Asākir
 Al-Bidāyah wa al-Nihāyah
 Ḥilya al-Awliyā’
 Siyar A’lām al-Nubalā
 Siyar A’lām al-Nubalā
 Ṣafwah al-Ṣafwah
 Siyar A’lām al-Nubalā, by al-Dhahabī
Shaykh Ali Ihsan Hammuda is Islam21c’s Tarbiya Editor. A UK national of Palestinian origin, he gained bachelors and masters’ degrees in Architecture & Planning from the University of the West of England, before achieving a BA in Shari’ah from al-Azhar University in Egypt. He is currently based in Wales and is a visiting Imām at Al-Manar Centre in Cardiff, and also a senior researcher and lecturer for the Muslim Research & Development Foundation in London. Shaykh Ali is the author of several books including ‘The Daily Revivals’, ‘The Ten Lanterns’ and ‘The Friday Reminder’. He delivers sermons, lectures and regular classes across the country.