Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Hanbal, Abu `Abd Allah al-Dhuhli al-Shaybani al-Marwazi al-Baghdadi (d. 241). Al-Dhahabi says of him: "The true Shaykh of Islam and leader of the Muslims in his time, the hadith master and proof of the Religion. He took hadith from Hushaym, Ibrahim ibn Sa`d, Sufyan ibn `Uyayna, `Abbad ibn `Abbad, Yahya ibn Abi Za’ida, and their layer. From him narrated al-Bukhari [two hadiths in the Sahih], Muslim , Abu Dawud , Abu Zur`a, Mutayyan, `Abd Allah ibn Ahmad, Abu al-Qasim al-Baghawi, and a huge array of scholars. His father was a soldier û one of those who called to Islam û and he died young." Al-Dhahabi continues:
`Abd Allah ibn Ahmad said: "I heard Abu Zur`a [al-Razi] say: ‘Your father had memorized a million hadiths, which I rehearsed with him according to topic.’"Hanbal said: "I heard Abu `Abd Allah say: ‘I memorized everything which I heard from Hushaym when he was alive.’"Ibrahim al-Harbi said: "I held Ahmad as one for whom Allah had gathered up the combined knowledge of the first and the last."Harmala said: "I heard al-Shafi`i say: ‘I left Baghdad and did not leave behind me anyone more virtuous (afdal), more learned (a`lam), more knowledgeable (afqah) than Ahmad ibn Hanbal.’"`Ali ibn al-Madini said: "Truly, Allah reinforced this Religion with Abu Bakr al-Siddiq the day of the Great Apostasy (al-Ridda), and He reinforced it with Ahmad ibn Hanbal the day of the Inquisition (al-Mihna)."Abu `Ubayd said: "The Science at its peak is in the custody of four men, of whom Ahmad ibn Hanbal is the most knowledgeable."Ibn Ma`in said, as related by `Abbas [al-Duri]: "They meant for me to be like Ahmad, but û by Allah! û I shall never in my life compare to him."Muhammad ibn Hammad al-Taharani said: "I heard Abu Thawr say: ‘Ahmad is more learned û or knowledgeable û than al-Thawri.’"
Al-Dhahabi concludes: "Al-Bayhaqi wrote Abu `Abd Allah’s biography (sîra) in one volume, so did Ibn al-Jawzi, and also Shaykh al-Islam [`Abd Allah al-Harawi] al-Ansari in a brief volume. He passed on to Allah’s good pleasure on the day of Jum`a, the twelfth of Rabi` al-Awwal in the year 241, at the age of seventy-seven. I have two of his short-chained narrations (`awâlîh), and a licence (ijâza) for the entire Musnad." Al-Dhahabi’s chapter on Imam Ahmad in Siyar A`lam al-Nubala’ counts no less than 113 pages.
One of the misunderstandings prevalent among the "Salafis" who misrepresent Imam Ahmad’s school today is his position regarding kalâm or dialectic theology. It is known that he was uncompromisingly opposed to kalâm as a method, even if used as a means to defend the truth, preferring to stick to the plain narration of textual proofs and abandoning all recourse to dialectical or rational ones. Ibn al-Jawzi relates his saying: "Do not sit with the people of kalâm, even if they defend the Sunna." This attitude is at the root of his disavowal of al-Muhasibi. It also explains the disaffection of later Hanbalis towards Imam al-Ash`ari and his school, despite his subsequent standing as the Imam of Sunni Muslims par excellence. The reasons for this rift are now obsolete although the rift has amplified beyond all recognizable shape, as it is evident, in retrospect, that opposition to Ash`aris, for various reasons, came out of a major misunderstanding of their actual contributions within the Community, whether as individuals or as a whole.
There are several general reasons why the Hanbali-mutakallim rift should be considered artificial and obsolete. First, kalâm in its original form was an innovation in Islam (bid`a) against which there was unanimous opposition among Ahl al-Sunna. The first to use kalâm were true innovators opposed to the Sunna, and in the language of the early scholars kalâm was synonymous with the doctrines of the Qadariyya, Murji’a, Jahmiyya, Jabriyya, Rawâfid, and Mu`tazila and their multifarious sub-sects. This is shown by the examples Ibn Qutayba gives of kalâm and mutakallimûn in his book Mukhtalif al-Hadith, none of which belongs to Ahl al-Sunna. Similarly the adherents of kalâm brought up in the speech of al-Hasan al-Basri, Ibn al-Mubarak, Ibn Rahuyah, Imam al-Shafi`i and the rest of the pre-Hanbali scholars of hadith are the innovators of the above-mentioned sects, not those who later opposed them using the same methods of reasoning. The latter cannot be put in the same category. Therefore the early blames of kalâm cannot be applied to them in the same breath with the innovators.
Second, there is difference of opinion among the Salaf on the possible use of kalâm to defend the Sunna, notwithstanding Imam Ahmad’s position quoted above. One reason why they disallowed it is wara`: because of extreme scrupulousness against learning and practicing a discipline initiated by the enemies of the Sunna. Thus they considered kalâm reprehensible but not forbidden, as is clear from their statements. For example, Ibn Abi Hatim narrated that al-Shafi`i said: "If I wanted to publish books refuting every single opponent [of the Sunna] I could easily do so, but kalâm is not for me, and I dislike that anything of it be attributed to me." This shows that al-Shafi`i left the door open for others to enter a field which he abstained from entering out of strict Godwariness.
Third, kalâm is a difficult, delicate science which demands a mind above the norm. The imams forbade it as a sadd al-dharî`a or pre-empting measure. They rightly foresaw that unless one possessed an adequate capacity to practice it, one was courting disaster. This was the case with Ahmad’s student Abu Talib, and other early Hanbalis who misinterpreted Ahmad’s doctrinal positions as Bukhari himself stated. Bukhari, Ahmad, and others of the Salaf thus experienced first hand that one who played with kalâm could easily lapse into heresy, innovation, or disbelief. This was made abundantly clear in Imam Malik’s answer to the man who asked how Allah established Himself over the Throne: "The establishment is known, the ‘how’ is inconceivable, and to ask about it is an innovation!" Malik’s answer is the essence of kalâm at the same time as it warns against the misuse of kalâm, as observed by the late Dr. Abu al-Wafa’ al-Taftazani. Malik’s reasoning is echoed by al-Shafi`i’s advice to his student al-Muzani: "Take proofs from creation in order to know about the Creator, and do not burden yourself with the knowledge of what your mind did not reach." Similarly, Ibn Khuzayma and Ibn Abi Hatim admitted their technical ignorance of the science of kalâm, at the same time acknowledging its possible good use by qualified experts. As for Ibn Qutayba, he regretted his kalâm days and preferred to steer completely clear of it.
In conclusion, any careful reader of Islamic intellectual history can see that if the Ash`ari scholars of kalâm had not engaged and defeated the various theological and philosophical sects on their own terrain, the silence of Ahl al-Sunna might well have sealed their defeat at the hands of their opponents. This was indicated by Taj al-Din al-Subki who spoke of the obligatoriness of kalâm in certain specific circumstances, as opposed to its superfluousness in other times. "The use of kalâm in case of necessity is a legal obligation (wajib), and to keep silence about kalâm in case other than necessity is a sunna."
The biographical notice on Imam Ahmad in the Reliance of the Traveller reads: "Out of piety, Imam Ahmad never gave a formal legal opinion (fatwa) while Shafi`i was in Iraq, and when he later formulated his school of jurisprudence, he mainly drew on explicit texts from the [Qur’an], hadith, and scholarly consensus, with relatively little expansion from analogical reasoning (qiyâs). He was probably the most learned in the sciences of hadith of the four great Imams of Sacred Law, and his students included many of the foremost scholars of hadith. Abu Dawud said of him: ‘Ahmad’s gatherings were gatherings of the afterlife: nothing of this world was mentioned. Never once did I hear him mention this-worldly things.’ ... He never once missed praying in the night, and used to recite the entire [Qur’an] daily. He said, ‘I saw the Lord of Power in my sleep, and said, "O Lord, what is the best act through which those near to You draw nearer?" and He answered, "Through [reciting] (sic) My word, O Ahmad." I asked, "With understanding, or without?" and He answered, "With understanding and without."’. . . Ahmad was imprisoned and tortured for twenty-eight months under the Abbasid caliph al-Mu`tasim in an effort to force him to publicly espouse the [Mu`tazila] position that the Holy [Qur’an] was created, but the Imam bore up unflinchingly under the persecution and refused to renounce the belief of Ahl al-Sunna that the [Qur’an] is the uncreated word of Allah, after which Allah delivered and vindicated him. When Ahmad died in 241/855, he was accompanied to his resting place by a funeral procession of eight hundred thousand men and sixty thousand women, marking the departure of the last of the four great mujtahid Imams of Islam."
Ibn al-Jawzi narrates from Bilal al-Khawass that the latter met al-Khidr and asked him: "What do you say of al-Shafi`i?" He said: "One of the Pillar-Saints (Awtâd)." "Ahmad ibn Hanbal?" "He is a Siddîq."