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Memories from NASA Musalla: The Story of Imam Ahmed Ibn Hanbal

This is a short talk (khatirah) given by Shaykh Waleed Basyouni after Fajr at NASA Musalla a few months before we moved to the new location

Imam Ahmad Ibn Hanbal

Along time ago, a pious man who used to live with his wife in a border town passed away. His wife was pregnant. So she thought that a border town was not going to be a good place for her child to grow up. After all they only lived that far because her husband’s job was to protect the border along with the Muslim soldiers that were stationed there for that purpose. She moved to Baghdad the capital of the Islamic state (khilafah) at the time. Soon after she moved, she gave birth to a boy. She named him Ahmad. The mother wanted her son to become a scholar so from a very early age she enrolled him in the “kuttaab”–the equivalent of today’s elementary school. There Ahmad learned reading, writing, arithmetic and Quran. He was very brilliant and became the first in his class, so they moved him to a more reputable schooling system which was called “al Diwan.” This new school was under the direct supervision of the caliph himself. As you may all know now, the boy was Ahmad Ibn Hanbal. Imam Ahmad said that he started studying the sciences of religion at the age of 15. He learned under several scholars at that age. He learned under the two most famous students of Imam Abu Hanifa (rahimahu Allah): Imam Abu Yusuf and Imam Muhammad Ibn al Hasan al Shaybani. Imam Ahmad was not content to only know what the other scholars said and their fatwas, he wanted to learn what they had learned. So he started studying the hadith of the Prophet (salla Allahu alayhee wa sallam).

He asked permission from his mother to go to al Kufa (6o miles south of Baghdad) where he could meet a scholar by the name Husheim. He was a very famous scholar of hadith. Under Husheim, he learned and memorized 4000 hadith. He also moved on to learn under Wakee’ al Jarrah. In one of the classes, Wakee’ narrated a hadith from Husheim. Imam Ahmad noticed a discrepancy in the narration so he said, “that is not how Husheim narrated this hadith.” It was unusual for a student to correct his teacher. So Wakee’ disputed with him. Imam Ahmad insisted that was not the way of Husheim. So Wakee’ told his students to bring the books. They discovered that Imam Ahmad (who was still a teenager at the time) was correct. So Wakee’ told everyone that if they wanted to learn the hadith of Husheim they should learn it from Ahmad.

While in Kufa, Imam Ahmad found an opportunity to go to Makkah for Hajj. But he did not ask his mother’s permission. A journey to Makkah from Iraq was somewhat risky at the time, and it would require much preparation and company. He and his life-long friend Yahya bin Mu’een set out for Makkah. Their intention was to perform Hajj, and then meet with some of the scholars of Makkah. They had wanted to meet with Abdul Razzaq al San’aani, a famous scholar of hadith who lived in Yemen. Imam Ahmad and Yahya bin Mu’een were performing tawaf when they saw Abdul Razzaq. Yahya told him, “this is our opportunity to meet with him and ask him our questions.” Imam Ahmad said, “No. I would not change my intention.” He had intended to go to Yemen and meet with the Sheikh there, which in and of itself was a good deed. So he did not want to break this intention. Yahya disagreed, so he got what he wanted but Imam Ahmad resolved to travel to Yemen and meet with the Sheikh there.

While in Makkah, he learned under Sufyan Ibn ‘Uyaynah. He and many other students of knowledge used to meet with the Sheikh in a basement, which used to get very hot and crowded. It was so hot at one time, Imam Ahmad fainted. So they carried him to the front. After that they would have sit close to the Sheikh.

The trip to Yemen was not an easy one. It was far more dangerous than the trip between Iraq and Makkah. Furthermore, Imam Ahmad did not have any money. He had spent everything on the trip to Makkah and on Hajj. He could walk there but still he had his books which he could not carry. So he decided to offer his labor to a caravan. He would take care of the camels in exchange for joining them and letting him load his books on one of the camels. He arrived at Abdul Razzaq’s house. So he knocked at the door. The nearby grocer interrupted him. “what are you doing young man?” he said. “I want to see the Sheikh.” Imam Ahmad replied. The grocer said, “Abdul Razzaq is a reputable scholar and he is resting. You don’t bother him like this.” So Imam Ahmad said, “Well, I will wait for him here.” After few hours the Sheikh came out. Imam Ahmad introduced himself briefly and said: “I have taken these ahaadith from narrators who said they took them from students of students of your sheikh. So I want to verify them with you and learn under you.” Abdul Razzaq was obviously taken by surprise. So he was a bit harsh with Imam Ahmad and asked “Who are you?” and “why are you at my doorsteps.” So Imam Ahmad said to him, “I am Ahmad Ibn Hanbal.” Abdul Razzaq was more surprised this time. “Who did you say you are?” “I am Ahmad Ibn Hanbal.” So Abdul Razzaq took him in his arms and happily embraced him. He had heard about him. Imam Ahmad did not know that he was now at the tongue of every scholar and student of knowledge. This was due to Imam Al Shaafi’i (may Allah have mercy on him). When Imam Al Shaafi’ visited Baghdad he met with Imam Ahmad. He left Baghdad saying: “When I left Baghdad and had never seen a more knowledgeable person in it than Ahamd Ibn Hanbal.” This statement had been circulated throughout the circles of knowledge all over the Islamic world. That indeed was due to Allah’s blessings upon Imam Ahmad. It was said by one other scholar that he had seen Imam Ahmad lecture (and give fatwa) in the Masjid Al-Kheef in Mina. He had never seen a more thorough scholar than Imam Ahmad.

Imam Ahmad said that after that they sat by the doorsteps and looked over all the books that Imam Ahmad had. Maghrib time came upon them. Imam Ahmad started to worry about the prayer. Abdul Razzaq was so interested in reading what Imam Ahmad had written in his books, he wanted to read more, so he asked the grocer to bring a lantern. When it was dark, he told Imam Ahmad: “now let us go to the Masjid.” Abdul Razzaq was of the opinion of preferring to pray maghrib when it was dark. Imam Ahmad stayed in Yemen for 10 months. He had not told his mother that he was going to Hajj and then to Yemen. So he needed to leave.

Imam Ahmad was poor. He did labor work to earn his money and sustain his learning. During his stay in Yemen, Abdul Razzaq insisted that he lead the prayer. So one night he was leading the prayer. He made a lot of mistakes in his recitation. So when the prayer was over, Abdul Razzaq asked him if he was feeling ok. The other students told him that Imam Ahmad had not eaten anything for three days. He did not have money to buy food. His last food he ate was the bread that he bought from the bakery and paid for with his shoes. So Abdul Razzaq took him to his home. He went to his wife and brought 10 dinars. He said: “the only source of income the people here have is when they harvest their fruits and vegetables and sell them. But I managed to find this for you.” He offered him the 10 dinars. Imam Ahmad kindly said: “If I were to take money from anyone, I would take it from you. But I don’t take money from anyone.” Imam Ahmad seemed to have vowed not depend on anyone or ask money of anyone. He would work and sustain himself with whatever had had earned. Imam Ahmad was said to have refused many gifts of the Caliphs which amounted to 500,000 dinars. His brother would say: “He would refuse the gift of the caliph when he even did not have bread in his home.” Earlier when he was in Makkah, he was absent from the class for three days. So the teacher asked where he was. They told him that he was staying in a cave in a mountain in Ajyad (an area in Makkah). So they went to see him. When Imam Ahmad noticed that some people were coming, he told them not to enter until he was ready. So when they were able to enter the cave, they found him wrapped in a sheep skin reading his books. They asked him what had happened. He said that he was taking a bath when a thief took his clothes and ran away. So that was why he could not attend the class. His classmate offered him 70 dinars. But he said,”I don’t take money from anyone.” But I will manage and find work. He offered less and less but Imam Ahmad would only say the same thing. But he said, “how about if I write for you everything the Sheikh has taught us for wages.” They agreed and that was how he was able to buy clothes.

Imam Ahmad is famous for his firm stance in the fitna of al Mamoun, an Abbasid Caliph, and the issue of the creation of the Quran. It was based on the deviated theory that Allah has no names or attributes. consequently, the Quran was not Allah’s words, but rather a creation. Al Mamoun was convinced of this deviation as he was about many issues of Greek philosophy of which he was fond and to which he dedicated a whole institution to translate into Arabic. He wanted all the famous scholars to agree with him. So some of them managed to save themselves but giving an agreeable answer. Imam Ahmad, however, insisted to be firm and stand against this fitna. He was exposed to torture. He did not meet al Mamoun, since the latter died before they could meet. But al Mamoun’s successor, al Mu’tasim, took over and ordered that Imam Ahmad be tortured if he did not agree with their belief. They had made a special whip made of leather and thorns. So when the torturer would strike Imam Ahmad with it, it would tear his skin. The doctor who later treated him, said: “I have not seen wounds like these before.” The cuts were so deep they exposed the flesh and bones. It was extremely painful. Imam Ahmad would only quote the Quran and the sunnah of the Prophet. With every strike he would resort to Allah envoking His beautiful and mighty Names and Attributes. Al Mu’tasim attended most of the sessions. So Imam Ahmad would say to him: “Ya Mu’tasim, you will be brought before Allah, as I am now brought before you.” Al Mu’tasim would order the torture to be more intense and painful. Then he would come to the Imam and tell him, “I don’t like to torture you. Just say or write that you agree and I will release you. I have inherited this problem and I cannot back off if you do not agree.” Imam Ahmad would remain firm on his stance and say, “If you have any proof from the Quran or the hadith then let me hear it and I will agree but if you do not I will not.” The man behind this whole fitna (Ahmad bin Abi Duad) was present and said to Al Mu’tsim: “Kill him. He (meaning Imam Ahmad) is a kafir, and I take the responsibility for his death.” al Mu’tasim said: “I will not kill him. I will not meet my Lord with the blood of Ahmad on my hands. He is a righteous man.”

After Imam Ahmad was released, he was heard praying for al Mu’tsim’s forgiveness. His son was furious to hear him do that. So he asked him “Why after all he had done to you!” Imam Ahmad said: “I don’t want to see a member of the family of the Prophet (salla Allah alayhee wa sallam) to be in Hellfire because of me.” His love for the Prophet (pbuh) caused him to be loving and merciful towards his family.

Until the day he died, Imam Ahmad kept praying for seven people, among them was Imam Al Shafi’i and others. But his son noticed that he had included a man with them of whom he had not heard. So he asked: “who is Abu Haitham al Haddad who you keep mentioning in your dua.” so the Imam said: “Don’t you know Abu Haitham al Haddad?” He said: “While I was being tortured, a man whispered to me: “I am Abu Haitham al Haddad.” I asked who he was. He said: “You don’t know me! I am the one who had been punished with over 18,000 lashes, all of them were for this dunya (because he was a thief) and I did not give in. I exhort you to be patient and take these lashes and be firm. You are being punished for the sake of Allah and the Hereafter.” Imam Ahmad said, “It was his words that kept me firm.”

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