Bismillahi Al-Rahmani Al-Rahim

Was Imam Ahmad Merely A Muhaddith?

I have read somewhere that Imam Tabari (rh) did not consider that Imam Ahmad Ibn Hanbal was a Mujtahid (Mutlaq?) but that he was only a Muhaddith? Is this known and what have other ulema said of this?

al-salamu `alaykum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuhu

This is nothing new. We can start with something GF Haddad wrote on the issue:

ImÄm Ahmad an Authority in HadÄ«th Rather than Fiqh?
GF Haddad â€"

Al-NasÄ’ī cites ImÄm Ahmad among the great Jurisprudents toward the end of his monograph Tasmiyat FuqahÄ’ al-AmsÄr. However, many of the authorities preferred to class the ImÄm among the hadÄ«th Masters rather than the Jurisprudents. In his book IkhtilÄf al-FuqahÄ’ (“The Differences of the Jurisprudentsâ€), ImÄm al-TabarÄ« mentions the differences of opinion between MÄlik, al-AwzÄ‘ī, SufyÄn al-ThawrÄ«, al-ShÄfi‘ī, AbÅ« HanÄ«fa, AbÅ« YÅ«suf, Muhammad ibn al-Hasan, and AbÅ« Thawr. He mentions some of the Jurists among the Companions, the Successors, and their followers until the second century. Asked why he did not mention ImÄm Ahmad ibn Hanbal in his book, al-TabarÄ« replied that “Ahmad was not a FaqÄ«h but a Muhaddith.†The followers of the HanbalÄ« School took offense and reportedly roused the people against him, preventing visitors and students from visiting him in the daytime, and he died and was buried in his house.

Al-Tabarī’s reply is neither new nor unique of its kind. Several of those who wrote about the differences among jurists did not mention ImÄm Ahmad . Among them: al-TahÄwÄ«, al-DabbÅ«sÄ«, al-NasÄfÄ«, ‘AlÄ’t al-DÄ«n al-SamarqandÄ«, al-FirahÄ« al-HanafÄ« (one of the scholars of the seventh century) in his book DhÄt al-‘Uqdayn, and others of the HanafÄ«s who wrote on the subject, all omitted him. Ibn al-FardÄ« said in his chronicle of the scholars of al-Andalus, upon mentioning AbÅ« Muhammad ‘Abd AllÄh ibn Muhammad al-AsÄ«lÄ« al-MÄlikÄ«, that the latter wrote a book concerning the differences of MÄlik, al-ShÄfi‘ī, and AbÅ« HanÄ«fa called al-DalÄ’il fÄ« UmmahÄt al-MasÄ’il (“The Proofs For The Paramount Questionsâ€). He states:

The author of Kashf al-ZunÅ«n said that Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-RahmÄn al-SamarqandÄ« al-SakhÄwÄ«1 who died in MardÄ«n in 721 in ‘Umdat al-TÄlib li Ma‘rifat al-MadhÄhib (“The Reliance of the Student of the Knowledge of the Schoolsâ€) mentioned the differences among jurists and said in the end: “I placed in my book the views of al-Nu‘mÄn [AbÅ« HanÄ«fa], Ya‘qÅ«b [AbÅ« YÅ«suf], Muhammad [ibn al-H.asan al-ShaybÄnÄ«] and their excellent companions, also al-ShÄfi‘ī, MÄlik, and all in which they differed with the Shī‘as. May AllÄh give them life and every reward.â€

Nor did al-GhazzÄlÄ«, who also wrote about ikhtilÄf, mention Ahmad in his WajÄ«z; nor did AbÅ« al-Barakat al-NasÄfi in his al-WÄfÄ«. As for the authors of books of history and geography, Ibn Qutayba did not mention Ahmad in al-Ma‘Ärif; al-MaqdisÄ« does mention him in Ahsan al-TaqÄsÄ«m fÄ« AshÄb al-HadÄ«th, but he does not include him among the AshÄb al-Fiqh while he includes DÄwÅ«d al-ZÄhirÄ«. Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr wrote al-IntiqÄ’ fÄ« FadÄ’il al-ThalÄthat al-FuqahÄ’ (“The Hand-Picked Excellent Merits of the Three Great Jurisprudent ImÄms: MÄlik, al-ShÄfi‘ī, and AbÅ« HanÄ«faâ€),2 concerning which Shaykh ‘Abd al-FattÄh AbÅ« Ghudda said: “It appears that Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr considered ImÄm Ahmad a foremost authority in hadÄ«th who chose certain positions in fiqh, as was al-Tabarī’s view of Ahmad before him.†The anonymous ‘Umdat al-‘ĀrifÄ«n (“Reliance of the Knowersâ€) mentions as the fourth of the Four ImÄms not Ahmad, but SufyÄn al-ThawrÄ«. Al-GhazzÄlÄ« said: “He and Ahmad were of the most famous ImÄms for their strong fear of AllÄh, and for the small number of their followers. As for now, the School of SufyÄn is abandoned, and the consensus of the Muslims is around the four known schools.†However, the School of SufyÄn survived enough for al-NawawÄ« to cite it among “the five Schools that are followed.â€3

Al-KhatÄ«b al-BaghdÄdÄ« was also taken to task by the HanbalÄ«s for naming Ahmad “the master of hadÄ«th scholars†(sayyid al-muh.addithÄ«n) in his biographies of the Scholars of BaghdÄd while reserving the highest level of jurisprudence for al-ShÄfi‘ī.

1This is not Ibn Hajar’s student Shams al-DÄ«n Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Rah.mÄn ibn Muhammad ibn AbÄ« Bakr al-SakhÄwÄ« al-ShÄfi‘ī, who died in 902 in MadÄ«na and is buried in al-Baqī‘ near the grave of ImÄm MÄlik â€" AllÄh be well pleased with them.

2The order of sequence reflects the view of the MÄlikÄ« school that MadÄ«na is superior to Makka as shown by Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr’s words in the introduction to al-IntiqÄ’ (p. 34): “They are: AbÅ« ‘Abd AllÄh MÄlik ibn Anas al-As.bah.Ä« al-MadanÄ«, AbÅ« ‘Abd AllÄh Muh.ammad ibn IdrÄ«s al-ShÄfi‘ī al-MuttalibÄ« al-MakkÄ«, and AbÅ« HanÄ«fa al-Nu‘mÄn ibn ThÄbit al-KÅ«fÄ«.â€

3In al-IrshÄd (p. 239-240).

(Musa adds: Text © Copyright Gibril Haddad, 2002, 2003. All rights reserved. Contact the original author for reprint permission. I change the text slightly for HTML reasons.)

There are a few things that can be added here.

  1. In all of these examples, there is no example where it is only Imam Ahmad who has been excluded. Where, for example, is mention of Ja`far al-Sadiq (peace be upon him and his family), an mujtahid Imam of Ahl al-Sunnah, or Imam Ishaq? Mere omission is not enough to conclude that a given author did not consider Imam Ahmad to be a faqih or mujtahid Imam.

  2. Where an author does explicitly state that Imam Ahmad was not a faqih or a mujtahid, ijma` of the Ummah takes precedence over their personal opinion.

  3. Some scholars assume that citing hadith means lack of fiqh, just as some assume that simply mentioning a ruling means lack of hadithâ€"even though these two styles of fiqh are found in the practice of Companions known for their fiqh! Whenever `Abd Allah bin `Omar (Allah be pleased with him and his father) was asked a question, he usually simply cited a hadith. Compare this to `Abd Allah bin Mas`ud (Allah be pleased with him): whenever he was asked a question, he usually responded with an answer but without giving its evidence. Ibn `Omar was in Medina and Ibn Mas`ud was in Kufa (Allah be pleased with them). This gives historical precedence from the best trained community of Muslims ever for both styles of fiqh.

  4. In addition to (3), Ibn Rajab says that sometimes his approach to fiqh was too subtle for others to appreciate. Al-Hafiz Ibn Rajab writes in his Al-Radd `ala man ittaba` ghayr al-madhhahib al-arba` (“The Refutation Of Those Who Do Not Follow The Four Schoolsâ€):

[If you have a Unicode font installed, your browserâ€"in sha Allahâ€"will pick a suitable font. I used TITUS (see for transliteration. If all else fails, your browser will simply show boxes instead of the proper glyphs. If it simply does not show, please let me know.]

Part of what set him apart was his knowledge in the fiqh of hadith : understanding it, its lawful and the prohibited, and its meanings.[1] He was also the most knowledgeable of his peers in this, just like the ImÄms from his peers testified: IsḥÄq  [bin Rahuyah], AbÅ« Ë"Ubayd  , and others.

Whoever ponders his opinions in fiqh and understands his approach and insight [madÄrikahu], knows the strength of his understanding and inferences . However, because of the subtlety of his words in this, it might be difficult for many of the ImÄms who author books in his school to understand him, so they leave his subtle approach for others: weak approaches that they adopted from people outside of their school. Because of this many disturbances take place in understanding his words and they misinterpret them. Students of his school need nothing other than careful scrutiny and understanding his discourse.

Things have been seen from his understanding and knowledge that are full of amazement. How not when there is no issue that the Companions and their Successors y spoke about except that he knew it, his knowledge encompassed it, and he recognized the base of the issue and understood it? Likewise the words of the jurists /43/ from all regions and the ImÄms of all lands : such as MÄlik , Al-AwzÄË"Ä«, Al-ThaurÄ«, and others. All of the knowledge and legal verdicts of those ImÄms were read to him. He responded to them, sometimes agreeing, and sometimes disagreeing. Indeed, Muhanna bin YahyÄ bin Manṣūr  read to him all of the issues of Al-ThaurÄ«  and he responded to them. A group read to him the issues of MÄlik  and his legal verdicts from Al-Muwaá¹­á¹­a and others and he responded to them; Ḥanbal  and others related this. IsḥÄq bin Manṣūr  read to him all of the issues of Al-ThaurÄ« and he responded to them. In the beginning, he wrote the books of AbÅ« HanÄ«fa’s  companions and understood them, their approach in jurisprudence, and their insights.[2] He had debated Al-ShÄfiË"Ä« and sat with him for a time and took from him. /44/

Al-ShÄfiË"Ä«   witnessed those great things in jurisprudence and knowledge while Aḥmad , in spite of this, was just a youth not yet at the height of his life.

It is known that it would be the easiest thing for someone who understood these sciences and excelled in them to know new issues and respond to them on the basis of these accurately mastered fundamentals and known approaches. Because of this AbÅ« Thaur  said, “Whenever Aḥmad  was asked about an issue it was as if the knowledge of the world was [written] on a board in front of his eyes†(or however it was said).

We do not know an authentic [ṣaḥīḥ] sunna from the Prophet r except that he encompassed it with his knowledge. He was the strictest of people in following the sunna when it was authentic [ṣaḥīḥ] and unopposed by strong conflicting evidence. Indeed, he only abandoned taking what was not sound and was opposed by strong conflicting evidence. /45/

Because of the close contact the Salaf y had to the time of the prophecy and their frequent pursuit of the words of the Companions, Successors and those after them y, they knew the abhorrent hadiths that were not acted upon. They cast them aside and were content in following what the Salaf practiced. In this they knew things from the sunna [through direct experience] that those after them reached [vicariously] only through books of hadith because of the length of time and their distance.

[1]       And to this day there are people who question his status as a faqih and a mujtahid imam, even though there is consensus on the issue. Abu áº'ahra in Aḥmad addresses this issue, tracing it back to a text in Ibn KhaldÅ«n’s Al-Muqaddima and others. AbÅ« MansÅ«r Al-BaghdÄdÄ« includes ImÄm Aḥmad as one of the faqihs of this nation in his UsÅ«l Al-DÄ«n.

[2]       ImÄm Aḥmad started under Al-QÄá¸Ä« AbÅ« YÅ«suf. AllÄh be pleased with them both.

Text © Copyright Musa Furber, 2002, 2003. All rights reserved.

  1. While Imam al-Ghazali did not include Imam Ahmad's position in Al-Wajiz, and yet Al-GhazzÄlÄ« said: “[Sufyan Al-Thayri] and Ahmad were of the most famous ImÄms for their strong fear of AllÄh, and for the small number of their followers. As for now, the School of SufyÄn is abandoned, and the consensus of the Muslims is around the four known schools.â€

  2. In response to Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr's Al-IntiqÄ’ fÄ« FadÄ’il al-ThalÄthat al-FuqahÄ’ (“The Hand-Picked Excellent Merits of the Three Great Jurisprudent ImÄms: MÄlik, al-ShÄfi‘ī, and AbÅ« HanÄ«faâ€), one of my teachers points out that the book is a defence of these three Imams and that Imam Ahmad was not in need of this defence. He also pointed out (1) above: that other mujtahid Imams, such as Sufyan al-Thauri in this case, are not mentioned. Simply put: the book did not intent to give full coverage of the Imams.

This, in sha Allah. Suffices. This issue has value with regards to the Islamic history. But today the question has been settled and there is little practical benefit in trying to renew a controversy that has been settled. The verdict according to the scholars of Ahl al-Sunnah is that there is concensus that on the permissibility of following one of the four extant madhhabsâ€"with the Ash`aris including this as a specific point of `aqidah.

I have encountered several people who perpetuate the idea that Imam Ahmad was not a mujtahid. Some of them do this in hopes that this will somehow hurt the Salafis and Wahhabis who associate themselves with the madhhab, not realizing that Islam denounces the idea that the ends justify justify means. And some do this to support their madhhab in a bizarre campaign of process by elimination: they sytematically show the faults of the other scholarsâ€"ignoring the faults of their own scholars, of courseâ€"so that their scholars are the only ones left. I have yet to find someone who does this based on evidence, sound reasoning, and without a personal agenda. And al-hamdu lillah, most of the ones I have met abandonded this line of reasoning once they realized its dangers. May Allah forgive us all.

And Allah knows best.

Wa al-salamu `alaykum,