The Formation of Hanbalism: Piety into Power

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 The Formation Of Hanbalism
  • Book Author:
Nimrod Hurvitz
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Allah strengthened this faith [Islam] with two men and no other A compares with them, Abū Bakr al-Siddīq on the day of the ridda [war of apostasy] and Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal on the day of the mina [Inquisition].’1

This flattering remark was made by ‘Alī b. al-Madīnī (d. 235) who, along with Ahmad b. Ḥanbal (d. 241), was one of the leading scholars of his generation when the caliph al-Ma’mūn initiated a wave of interrogations known as the mina (218).2

When the persecutions ceased fifteen years later, Ibn Ḥanbal was the leading spiritual authority of his day, owing to his resistance to the mina’s administrators and Ibn al-Madīnī was a disgraced pariah because he collaborated with them. Guilt, or maybe an attempt to stage a comeback to favor, prompted Ibn al-Madīnī to compare Ibn Ḥanbal to Abū Bakr (d. 13), the Prophet’s political heir.

Although the comparison between a scholar and a political leader is a little surprising, Ibn Ḥanbal and Abū Bakr do have something in common: Both are remembered as strong-willed individuals who saved the Islamic community from disintegration.

 According to mainstream Islamic historians, Abū Bakr’s firm stand against the apostate tribes during the ridda wars prevented their secession from the burgeoning Islamic community. Ibn Ḥanbal’s ability to withstand torture and defy the caliph and his chief judge captivated the imagination of the masses and led the Traditionists to victory over the deviating sects that controlled the caliphal court.

 In Islamic collective memory, Ibn Ḥanbal’s defiance of his inquisitors catapulted him from the echelons of Traditionist leadership to the pantheon of historical heroes who are an inspiration to Muslims even today.

The study of Ibn Ḥanbal, an orphaned boy from an economically downgraded family who climbed to the heights of spiritual and political influence, highlights several aspects of Islamic society and religiosity.

Firstly, Ibn Ḥanbal’s rise to prominence demonstrates a common characteristic among Islamic societies: Religious prestige enabled the most humble man or woman to acquire social standing and political clout. Albert Hourani pointed out this particular feature: ‘sanctity or religious learning served in Islamic society as a point around which social power crystallized.’3

Many of the central figures of Islamic civilization, as well as countless individuals who gained the respect of their local communities, acquired their status by building a reputation for piety or learning.4 From the founders of madhāhib (schools of law) and arīqāt (ṣūfī fraternities) to mosque functionaries and ascetics, Muslims ascended the social ladder via religious rungs, and the case of Ibn Ḥanbal is a preeminent example of this phenomenon.5

Secondly, Ibn Ḥanbal’s position as a religious authority and political leader places him at the heart of some of the cardinal events and processes of the formative period of Islam. His activities enable us to examine and reinterpret three central issues in regard to the newly developed Sunni milieu: The moral trends in Traditionist circles; the early stage of the Ḥanbali madhhabs formation; and the mina, one of the decisive events of early Islam.

Finally, personal profiles from the world of medieval Islam are scarce. We know very little about the finances and relationships within specific families or the emotions and personalities of individuals. This portrayal of Ibn Ḥanbal is a rare opportunity for a glimpse at some of the mundane aspects of a medieval life.

Sources and Methodology

The foundations of Ibn Ḥanbal’s biographic tradition were put in place by his contemporaries. The bulk of it were anecdotes that go back to his sons Ṣaliḥ (d. 265) and Abdallāh (d. 290), his cousin Ḥanbal b. Ishāq (d. 273) and his concubine Husn.6 Together these informants constitute the ‘family corpus.’

Another group of contemporaries, who related anecdotes about him though these do not appear in the earliest biographies, is his classmates and his neighbors.7

A third source are two contemporary scholars, Ibn Sa’d (d. 231) and Bukhārī (d. 256), who wrote very short notices about him in their biographical dictionaries.8 The fourth contemporary source, and the only one that was antagonistic, was written by al-Jāḥiẓ (d. 255), whose interest in Ibn Ḥanbal was limited to his mina interrogation.9

The most copious source of anecdotes about Ibn Ḥanbal was his eldest son, Ṣāliḥ. Many of his stories have been collected into a book, Sīrat al-imām Amad b. anbal, whose contents are organized thematically: family and genealogy, scholarship, moral integrity, mina, and doxography10

The outstanding feature of this document is the light that it sheds on Ibn Ḥanbal’s feelings, habits, and private life. It tells of his anger and of his relations with his sons and reveals such details as his eating habits.

However, Ṣāliḥ’s emotional involvement with his father had a price. At times the Sīra reads like an ideological manifesto. The vignettes about Ibn Ḥanbal’s private life are imbued with moral undertones and the descriptions of the mina show him as a victorious defender of Traditionist theological sensibilities. In some instances Ṣāliḥ goes so far as to describe his own moral failures and his father’s displeasure with him, presumably to enhance Ibn Ḥanbal’s moral image.

Another relative who compiled anecdotes about Ibn Ḥanbal is Ḥanbal b.  Isḥāq.  His account of  the  mina drew  upon Ibn Ḥanbal himself and on Isḥaq b. Ḥanbal (the author’s father). This is probably the most detailed contemporary report of Ibn Ḥanbal’s imprisonment, interrogation, views on other mina victims, and relations with the caliphs.11 Together, Ṣāliḥ and Ḥanbal articulated the Ḥanbali narrative of the mina.12

The counter narrative to the Ḥanbali version appears in the essay Khalq al-Quran (creation of the Qur’an), which was written by al-Jāḥiẓ, a contemporary Mu‘tazili (school of theologians) belletrist, who was the protege of several courtiers.13 It was a polemic tract that furnished Abū al-Walīd (d. 239), the son of Ibn Abī Du’ād (d. 240) the mina’s chief interrogator, with arguments to justify the persecutions.14 After a general presentation of the contested issue, i.e., whether or not the Qur’an was created, it records the exchange between Ibn Ḥanbal and Ibn Abī Du’ād.

Al-Jāḥiẓ presents an anti-Ḥanbali account of events and observes that Ibn Ḥanbal was incapable of articulating his position, that he was stubborn and uncooperative, and most importantly, he capitulated even though he was not severely tortured.15

It is difficult to determine which of the accounts, the Ḥanbali or Mu’tazili, is the more accurate. Both al-Jāḥiẓ and Ibn Ḥanbal’s relatives treated Ibn Ḥanbal’s performance and its outcome as a piece of useful propaganda, so neither account can be considered to be completely reliable. Yet, their efforts to construct and disseminate an account of the event indicates how important it was to the struggle that was taking place between the Traditionists and Mu‘tazilis.

Alongside the biographical material on Ibn Ḥanbal, his contemporaries began to collect the adīth (Prophetic traditions) he transmitted, his opinions about other transmitters of adīth, his legal judgements, and his theological views. The central figure in this effort was his second son, ‘Abdallāh, who compiled the Musnad [a compendium of adīths that were transmitted by Ibn Ḥanbal], collected his opinions about other scholars in the ‘Ilal (weaknesses, i.e., criticism of adīth transmitters), recorded Ibn Ḥanbal’s polemic work, al- Radd alā zanādiqa wa-l-Jahmiyya (Refutation of the zanādiqa and Jahmiyya) and compiled his religio-political tract Kitāb al- Sunna (the Book of Tradition).16 Whereas ‘Abdallāh compiled his father’s adīth, polemic writings, and criticism of Traditionists nearly single-handedly, Ibn Ḥanbal’s masā’il (responsa) were collected by many of his followers.

 The evidence in the abaqāt al-anābila (Generations of the anābila) suggests that dozens of Ibn Ḥanbal’s disciples possessed and memorized his masā’il.17 Furthermore, we know of two more masā’il collections that can be traced back to his disciples.18

The individuals who laid the foundations of Ibn Ḥanbal’s biographic tradition and preserved his intellectual legacy were, for the most part, family members and close disciples. However, in subsequent generations an interesting development took place.

Whereas Ibn Ḥanbal’s thought was transmitted through the generations by Ḥanbalis, his biographic tradition was told and retold in much wider circles. One of the most interesting aspects of the transmission of Ibn Ḥanbal’s biography in the ensuing generations is the relatively meager participation of Ḥanbalis. Among those who passed down Ṣāliḥ’s Sīra were two scholars of traditions whose madhhab affiliation is not specified and a third who was a Shāfi‘ī.19 Similarly, not one of the transmitters of Ḥanbal b. Isḥāq’s Dhikr al-Mina was a Ḥanbali, whereas two were identified as Shāfi‘īs.20

In Abū Nu‘aym al-Isfahānī’s (d. 430) tarjama (biographic entry) of Ibn Ḥanbal the chains of transmission begin with Ibn Ḥanbal’s children and disciples, but after this first generation, few Ḥanbalis are included.21 The collective profile of these transmitters indicates that stories about Ibn Ḥanbal circulated among Ḥanbalis, Shāfi‘īs, and unaffiliated Traditionists.

The transmission of details about Ibn Ḥanbal’s life by scholars of different affiliations suggests that wide circles among the Traditionists revered him.

The most important Ḥanbali contribution to the transmission of Ibn Ḥanbal’s thought in later generations was made by Abū Bakr al-Khallāl (d. 311).22 Though most of his work is not extant, it is reputed that he collected twenty volumes of Ibn Ḥanbal’s masā’il into a compendium called Kitāb al-Jāmi23 Another of his important contributions was his history of the Ḥanbalis. Although this work is not extant, it was quoted by Ibn Abī Ya‘lā (d. 560), in his first volume of the abaqāt al anābila,

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