How Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal Stood up to Tyrannical Rulers

We live in difficult times, in which government scholars confirm the falsehoods of despotic rulers. One very well-known scholar rubber stamped Donald Trump’s now infamous Abraham Accords and praised the leadership of the UAE in the process. And in Arabia [1], another famous scholar described the notorious de facto ruler as a “divinely inspired reformer”!

The examples of the scrupulous scholars from the past who confronted oppression and tyranny provide a contrast to those who have strayed from the ideal.

Ibn al-Jawzi has documented the life of Imam Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal and how he spoke the Truth to those in power in the biographical work entitled Manāqib Imām Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal, which is excerpted below:

Before the rise of the Mu‘tazilites [2], there was general agreement on the principle of the Salaf [3] that the Qur’an is the speech of Allah and not created. Even when the Mu‘tazilites adopted the belief that the Qurʾan is created, they kept it a secret. Thus the principle remained inviolate down through the reign of [Hārūn] al-Rashīd…

Even after al-Rashīd died and al-Amīn became caliph, the official position remained the same. But when al-Ma’mūn came to power, a number of Mu‘tazilites insinuated themselves into his company and persuaded him to adopt the view that the Qur’an is created. Fearful of those from the Salaf who were still alive, al-Ma’mūn hesitated to call for assent to the new creed. Eventually, though, he resolved to impose it on the community…

According to his biographers, al-Ma’mūn sent a letter from al-Raqqah [in Syria] to the chief of the Baghdad police, Isḥāq ibn Ibrāhīm, telling him to put the people to the test, which he did.

[Ṣāliḥ ibn Ahmad bin Hanbal:] I heard my father say, “When they took us in to be questioned by Isḥāq ibn Ibrāhīm, the first thing they did was to read aloud the letter written by the one in Tarsus”—that is, al-Ma’mūn.“They recited some verses to us, including «Nothing is like Him» [42:11] and «He is the creator of everything.» [6:102, 13:16, 39:62 and 40:62] When I heard ‘Nothing is like Him,’ I recited «He is the All-Hearing, the All-Seeing.» [4]

“Then those present were put to the test. Those who withheld their assent were taken away and locked up. Of them all, only four resisted. Their names are Muḥammad ibn Nuḥ; ʿUbayd Allāh ibn ʿUmar al-Qawārīrī; al-Ḥasan ibn Ḥammād, called Sajjādah; and my father. Later ʿUbayd Allāh ibn ʿUmar and al-Ḥasan ibn Ḥammād gave in too, leaving only Muḥammad ibn Nūḥ and my father in confinement. There they stayed until, several days later, a letter arrived from Tarsus ordering the two of them to be transported there. They were duly sent, shackled one to the other.”

[…]

 

[Ibn Abī Usāmah:] I remember hearing that during the Inquisition, someone said to Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal, “See? Right loses and wrong wins!”

“Never!” he retorted. “Wrong wins only if people’s hearts wander off and lose their way, but ours haven’t done that yet.”

[Ṣāliḥ:] My father and Muḥammad ibn Nūḥ were carried off in chains and we went with them as far as al-Anbār. There Abū Bakr al-Aḥwal asked my father, “Abū ʿAbd Allāh, if they threaten you with a sword, will you give in?” 

“No,” he answered. Then he and Muḥammad ibn Nūḥ were taken away.

Later my father told me:

“When we got to al-Raḥbah it was the middle of the night. As we were leaving, a man came up to us and said, ‘Which of you is Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal?’

“Someone pointed me out. ‘Slow down,’ said the man to the camel-driver. Then to me: ‘Listen, you! What does it matter if they kill you right here and now? You’ll enter the Garden, here and now.’ Then he said, ‘I leave you in the care of Allah,’ and left.

“I asked who he was and they told me: ‘He’s an Arab of Rabīʿah named Jābir ibn ʿĀmir who composes poetry in the wilderness. People speak highly of him.’”

[Ibrāhīm ibn ‘Abd Allāh:] Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal said, “The most powerful thing anyone said to me during my ordeal was what a desert Arab said to me at Raḥbat Ṭawq: ‘Aḥmad, if you die for the truth you die a martyr, and if you live you live a hero.’”    

“With that he strengthened my resolve.”

Ibn Abī Ḥātim quoted his father as saying, “In the end he was right. By the time the Inquisition was over, Allah had made Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal a name to be reckoned with.”

[Ibn al-Jawzi:] We have also heard that al-Shāfiʿī, may God be pleased with him, had a dream where the Prophet asked him to warn Aḥmad that he would be tried regarding the creation of the Qurʾan…

[Al-Anbārī:] When I found out that Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal was being taken to see al-Ma’mūn, I crossed the Euphrates and found Aḥmad sitting in a caravanserai. When I greeted him he said, “Abū Ja‘far, you shouldn’t have troubled yourself!”

 “It was no trouble,” I told him. Then I said, “Listen here! As of today, you have people prepared to follow your example. If you say the Qur’an is created, many of them will say the same. If you resist, many of them will too. Think about it: even if that man doesn’t kill you, you’re going to die sooner or later anyway. So fear Allah and don’t give in!”

“Allah’s will be done!” said Aḥmad, weeping. “Allah’s will be done!” Then he said, “Abū Jaʿfar, repeat what you said for me.”

So I repeated it, and again he said “Allah’s will be done! Allah’s will be done!”

[Ṣāliḥ:] My father told me: “We were just leaving Adana when the city gate opened behind us and someone called out: ‘Good news! That man [i.e. al-Ma’mūn] is dead!’

“I had been praying I would never meet him.” […]

 [Ṣāliḥ:] My father and Muḥammad ibn Nūḥ were sent back from Tarsus still in irons. When they reached al-Raqqah, they were put onto a boat. At ‘Ānāt, Muḥammad ibn Nūḥ died and his chains were removed. My father prayed over his body.

[Ḥanbal:] I heard Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal say: “I never saw anyone so young or so unlearned stand up for Allah more bravely than Muḥammad ibn Nūḥ. I hope Allah saved him when he died!

 “One day, when the two of us were alone, he said to me, ‘Aḥmad, fear Allah! Fear Allah! We’re nothing alike, you and I. You’re a man people follow and everyone is watching and waiting to see what you’ll do. Fear Allah, and stand firm!’—or words to that effect. Imagine him trying to keep me strong and warn me to do the right thing! And look what happened to him: he fell sick and ended up dying by the side of a road somewhere. I prayed over him and buried him.” […]

[Al-Būshanjī:] During the reign of al-Ma’mūn, Aḥmad was taken away to the Byzantine frontier. He had traveled as far as al-Raqqah when al-Ma’mūn died at al-Badhandūn, so the two never met. That was in 218 H [833 CE].

Abū l-‘Abbās al-Raqqī, a Hadith scholar, told me that he and some others went to visit Aḥmad during his imprisonment in al-Raqqah. There they confronted him with the reports that allow a Muslim to conceal his beliefs when his life is in danger.

“But what do you do,” responded Aḥmad, “with Khabbāb’s report that says: ‘Before your time there were believers who could be sawed in half without renouncing their faith’?”

When they heard that they gave up hope.

“I don’t care if they keep me locked up,” he went on. “My house is already a prison. I don’t care if they kill me by the sword, either. The only thing I’m afraid of is being flogged. What if I can’t take it?”

One of the prisoners had overheard him. “Don’t worry, Aḥmad,” he said. “After two lashes you don’t feel the rest.”

Aḥmad looked relieved.

After that he was brought back from al-Raqqah and jailed in Baghdad.

[Ṣāliḥ:] When the news came that al-Ma’mūn had died, Muḥammad ibn Nūḥ and my father, still in chains, were sent back to al-Raqqah. From there they continued their journey on a prison ship. When they reached ‘Ānāt, Muḥammad ibn Nūḥ died and they buried him there. Finally my father, still in chains, reached Baghdad

First he stayed for a few days in Yāsirīyah. Then they held him in a house rented for that purpose near the Palace of ‘Umārah. After that he was transferred to the Commoners’ Prison in Mawṣilī Street—or, according to another report, a street called al-Mawṣiliyyah.

[Ṣāliḥ:] My father said, “I used to lead the prisoners in prayer with the chains still on me.” 

[Abū Bakr al-A‘yan:] I told Ādam al-‘Asqalānī I was traveling to Baghdad and asked him if he wanted anything.

“Yes,” he said. “When you get there, go to Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal, greet him for me, and tell him this. ‘You there! Fear Allah, and seek closeness to Him, by staying the course. Let no one dismay you: you stand—Allah willing—at the very gate of the Garden.’ And tell him: ‘We heard al-Layth ibn Sa‘d report, citing Muḥammad ibn ‘Ajlān, citing Abū l-Zinād, citing al-A‘raj, citing Abū Hurayrah, that the Prophet said: “If any ask you to disobey Allah, heed him not.”’”

So I went to see Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal in jail. When I found him, I greeted him, conveyed al-‘Asqalānī’s greeting, and repeated his words, along with the Hadith. Aḥmad lowered his gaze for a time, then raised his head and said, “Allah have mercy on him in life and death alike! His is good counsel indeed.”

[…]

When al-Ma’mūn died, Aḥmad was brought back to Baghdad and imprisoned there. Then he was tried by al-Mu‘taṣim. The chief judge at the time was Aḥmad ibn Abī Du’ād, who had persuaded the caliph to test people’s belief that the Qur’an is created.

Al-Marrūdhī said: When Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal was put in prison, the jailer came and asked him whether the Hadith about tyrants and those who serve them was authentic. Aḥmad told him it was.

“Am I one of those who serve them?” asked the jailer.

“Those who serve are the ones who cut your hair, wash your clothes, prepare your food, and do business with you. What you are is one of the tyrants.”

[Aḥmad:] In Ramadan of ’19 [September or October 834 CE] I was moved to Isḥāq ibn Ibrāhīm’s house. Every day they sent over two men—Aḥmad ibn Rabāḥ, one was called, and the other was Abū Shuʿayb al-Ḥajjām—to debate with me. When they were ready to leave they would call for a fetter and add it to the fetters that I already had on me. I ended up with four fetters on my legs.

On the third day one of the two came and started debating with me. At one point I asked, “What do you say about Allah’s knowledge?”

“Allah’s knowledge is created,” he replied.

“You’re an unbeliever!”

Present also was a man sent by Isḥāq ibn Ibrāhīm. When he heard me, he said, “You’re talking to the emissary of the Amīr al-Mu’minīn!”

“Whoever he is,” I replied, “he’s still an unbeliever.”

On the fourth night, he—that is, al-Mu‘taṣim—sent Bughā, called the Elder, to fetch me from Isḥāq’s. On the way out, I was taken to see Isḥāq, who said, “By Allah, Aḥmad, it’s your life we’re talking about here. He won’t behead you and be done with it: he’s sworn that if you don’t do as he asks he’ll flog you senseless and then throw you where you’ll never see the sun. Now look here: doesn’t Allah say «We have made it an Arabic Qur’an?»[43:3] How could He make it without creating it?”

I answered with a different verse: «He made them like stubble cropped by cattle.»[105:5] [5] Then I asked him whether “made them” meant “created them.” He didn’t know how to answer me so he said nothing. Finally he said, “Take him away!”

When we got to the place called the Orchard Gate, they took me out. Then they brought a riding animal and put me on it, fetters and all. There was no one with me to hold me up, and more than once I nearly fell over with the weight of the fetters. They took me inside—inside al-Mu‘taṣim’s palace, that is—put me in a room, and locked the door. I wanted to clean myself off for prayer, but it was the middle of the night and there was no lamp in the room. But when I stuck out my hand I found a pitcher of water and a basin nearby. So I did my ablutions and prayed.

 The next morning, I pulled the drawstring out of my trousers and used it to tie the fetters together so I could lift them, leaving my trousers hanging down on one side. Then al-Muʿtaṣim’s messenger came, took me by the arm, and told me to come along. So I appeared before al-Muʿtaṣim holding up my fetters with the cord. He was sitting there with Ibn Abī Du’ād and a crowd of his associates.

[Al-Būshanjī:] Al-Mu‘taṣim returned to Baghdad from the Byzantine front in Ramadan of ’18. It was then that he tried Aḥmad and had him flogged in open court.

[Aḥmad:] When I came before al-Mu‘taṣim, he kept telling me to come closer. When I got up close to him he told me to sit, and I did, weighed down by the fetters. After a time I asked if I might speak.

“Go ahead,” he said.

“What did the Prophet call on us to do?” I asked.

After a moment of silence, he replied: “To testify that there is no god but Allah.”

“Well, I testify that there is no god but Allah.” Then I went on: “Your grandfather Ibn ʿAbbās reports that when the delegation from the tribe of Qays came to see the Prophet, they asked him about faith. He answered, ‘Do you know what faith is?’

“‘God and His Messenger know best,’ they said.

“‘It means testifying that there is no god but Allah, and Muḥammad is His Messenger. It means holding the ritual prayer, paying the alms tax, and giving up one-fifth of your spoils.’”

“If my predecessor hadn’t left you for me to deal with,” said al-Mu‘taṣim, “I wouldn’t be doing this to you.” Then, turning to ʿAbd al-Raḥmān ibn Isḥāq, he said, “Didn’t I ask you to stop the Inquisition?”

“Thank Allah!” I thought to myself. “The Muslims’ suffering is over!”

But then he said to them, “Debate with him. Talk to him!” and then again to ‘Abd al-Raḥmān: “Talk to him!”

“What do you say about the Qurʾan?” asked ʿAbd al-Raḥmān.

“What do you say about Allah’s knowledge?” I asked. He fell silent.

One of the others broke in. “But didn’t Allah say, «Allah is the creator of all things»?[6:120] And isn’t the Qur’an a thing?”

“Allah also mentioned a wind,” I said, “that would «destroy everything at the behest of its Lord,» [46:24-25] but it destroyed only what He wanted it to.” [6]

Then another one spoke up: “Allah says, «Whenever any new admonition comes to them from their Lord.» [21:2] How can something be new without having been created?”

I replied: “Allah also said, «Ṣād. By the Qur’an, containing the admonition.» [38:1] This admonition is the Qur’an. In the other verse there’s no ‘the.’”

One of them cited the Hadith of ʿImrān ibn Ḥuṣayn that Allah created the remembrance. “That’s wrong,” I said. “I have it on more than one source that he said, ‘Allah wrote the remembrance.’”

Next they tried arguing with me using the Hadith of Ibn Mas‘ūd: “Allah has created nothing—not the Garden or the Fire or the heavens or the earth—greater than the Throne Verse.”

I said: “The word ‘created’ applies to the Garden, the Fire, the heavens, and the earth, but not to the Qur’an.”

One of them cited the Hadith of Khabbāb: “You there! Try as you may to come nearer to Allah, you will find nothing dearer to Him by which to approach Him than His word.”

“Yes,” I said, “that’s what it says.”

Ibn Abī Du’ād glared at me.

And so it went. One of them would say something, and I would rebut him. Then another would speak and I would rebut him too. Whenever one of his men was stymied, Ibn Abī Du’ād would interrupt: “Amīr al-Mu’minīn! By Allah, he’s misguided, and misleading, and a heretical innovator!”

But al-Mu‘taṣim kept saying, “Talk to him! Debate him!”

So again one of them would say something, and I would rebut him. Then another would speak and I would rebut him too. When none of them had anything left to say, he—meaning al-Mu‘taṣim—said, “Come on, Aḥmad! Speak up!”

“Amīr al-Mu’minīn,” I replied, “give me something I can agree to—something from the Book of Allah or the Sunnah of His Messenger

At that, Ibn Abī Du’ād exclaimed, “What! You only repeat what’s in the Qur’an or the Sunnah of His Messenger?”

“You have an interpretation,” I said, “and that’s your affair, but it’s nothing to lock people up for, or put them in chains.”

[Al-Būshanjī:] One of my associates reported that Ibn Abī Du’ād confronted Aḥmad and tried to engage him in debate but Aḥmad ignored him. Eventually al-Muʿtaṣim asked Aḥmad why he wouldn’t address Ibn Abī Du’ād.

“I speak only with men of learning,” said Aḥmad.

[Aḥmad:] “Commander of the Faithful,” said Ibn Abī Du’ād, “seeing him capitulate to you would mean more to me than a hundred thousand dinars, and another hundred thousand dinars,”and so on, throwing out one number after another.

“If he tells me what I want to hear,” said al-Mu‘taṣim, “I swear I’ll unchain him with my own hands. Then I’ll lead my troops to him and march along behind him.” Then he said, “Aḥmad, I want what’s best for you, the same as if you were my son Hārūn. Come on, now: What can you tell me?”

“Give me something from the Book of Allah,” I said, “or the Sunnah of His Messenger

As the session dragged on, al-Mu‘taṣim grew bored and restless. “Go!” he said to the scholars. Then he ordered ʿAbd al-Raḥmān ibn Isḥāq and me to stay behind so he could talk to me.

“Come on!” he said. “Why don’t you give up?” Then he said, “I don’t recognize you. Have you never come here before?”

“I know him, Amīr al-Mu’minīn,” said ʿAbd al-Raḥmān ibn Isḥāq. “For thirty years, he’s been saying that Muslims owe obedience to you and should follow you in the Jihad and join you on the pilgrimage.”

“By Allah,” said al-Mu‘taṣim, “he’s a man of learning—a man of understanding! I wouldn’t mind having someone like him with me to argue against people from other religions.” Then, turning to me, “Did you know Ṣāliḥ al-Rashīdī?”

“I’ve heard of him,” I said.

“He was my tutor, and he was sitting right there,” he said, pointing to a corner of the room. “I asked him about the Qur’an and he contradicted me, so I had him trampled and dragged out. So Aḥmad: find something—anything—you can agree to, and I’ll unchain you with my own hands.”

“Give me something from the Book of Allah,” I said, “or the Sunnah of His Messsenger

The session dragged on. Finally al-Mu‘taṣim rose and went back inside, and I was sent back to the place where they had been keeping me.

After sunset prayers, two of Ibn Abī Du’ād’s associates were sent in to spend the night there and continue debating with me…When the meal arrived they pressed me to eat but I wouldn’t. Then, at some point during the night, al-Mu‘taṣim sent over Ibn Abī Du’ād.

“The Amīr al-Mu’minīn wants to know if you have anything to say.”

I gave him my usual answer.

“You know,” he said, “your name was one of the seven—Yaḥyā ibn Ma‘īn and the rest—but I rubbed it out.”[7]

The seven were Yāḥyā ibn Ma‘īn, Abū Khaythamah, Aḥmad al-Dawraqī, al-Qawārīrī, Sa‘duwayh, and—in some accounts—Khalaf al-Makhzūmī.

Ibn Abī Du’ād continued: “I was sorry to see them arrest you.” Then he said, “The Amīr al-Mu’minīn has sworn to give you a good long beating and then throw you somewhere where you’ll never see the sun. But he also says that if you capitulate he’ll come and unchain you himself.”

Then he left.

The next morning—on my second day there—al-Mu‘taṣim’s envoy came, took me by the arm, and brought me before him. Again al-Muʿtaṣim ordered them to debate me. “Talk to him!” he said.

So the debate began again. One of them would speak from over here and I would answer him, and another from over there and I’d answer him too. Whenever they mentioned anything not in the Book of Allah or the Sunnah of His Messenger , or in a report about the early Muslims, I would say, “I don’t know what you mean.”

“Amīr al-Mu’minīn,” they would protest, “when he has an argument against us he stands his ground, but whenever we make a point he says he doesn’t know what we’re talking about.”

“Keep debating him!” said al-Mu‘taṣim.

“All I see you doing,” said one of them, “is citing Hadith and claiming to know what it means.”

“What do you say,” I asked him, “about the verse «Concerning your children, Allah enjoins you that a male shall receive a share equivalent to that of two females»?”[4:11]

“It applies only to believers,” he said.

I asked him: “What about murderers, slaves, or Jews?”

He fell silent. I had resorted to that tactic for one reason: they had been arguing on the basis of the plain text of the Qur’an while accusing me of citing Hadith for no good reason [8].

They kept at it until nearly noon. When al-Mu‘taṣim had had enough, he sent everyone away except for ʿAbd al-Raḥmān ibn Isḥāq, who continued to argue with me. Finally al-Muʿtaṣim rose and went back inside, and I was sent back to the place where they had been holding me.

[ʿAbd Allāh:] Al-Fatḥ ibn Shakhraf wrote to me in his own hand saying that he heard from Ibn Ḥuṭayṭ—a man of learning from Khurasan, whose name he gave in full—that before Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal was flogged, he and some of his fellow victims of the Inquisition were kept in confinement in a house somewhere.

“Night fell,” said Aḥmad, “and the others went to sleep, but I couldn’t stop thinking about what would happen to me. Then I saw a tall man picking his way around the sleepers toward me.

“‘Are you Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal?’ he asked.

“I said nothing and he asked again. When I didn’t answer, he asked a third time: ‘Are you Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal?’

“‘Yes.’

“‘Only endure,’ he said, ‘and the Garden is yours.’

“Later, when I felt the burning of the whips, I remembered what he’d told me.”

[Aḥmad:] I remember thinking to myself on the third night that something was bound to happen the next day. I asked one of the men who were assigned to me to find me a cord. He found one and I used it to pull up my chains. Then I put the drawstring back on my trousers to hold them up so I wouldn’t be exposed if something happened to me.

On the morning of the third day,al-Mu‘taṣim sent for me again. I entered the hall to find it packed with people. As I came slowly forward, I saw people with swords, people with whips, and so on—many more than on the first two days. When I reached him, he told me to sit down. “Debate him,” he told the others. “Talk to him!”

They began to argue with me. One would talk and I would answer him, and then another would talk and I’d answer him too. Soon I was winning. One of the men standing near al-Muʿtaṣim began pointing at me. After the session had gone on for a while, al-Mu‘taṣim had me led away to one side so he could confer with them alone. Then he sent them to the side and had me brought over.

“Come on, Aḥmad!” he said. “Tell me what I want to hear, and I’ll unchain you with my own hands.”

When I gave him my usual answer, he cursed me, then said, “Drag him away and strip him!”

I was dragged away and stripped.

Some time before, I had acquired some of the Prophet’s hair. Noticing that I had something knotted up in the sleeve of my shirt, Isḥāq ibn Ibrāhīm sent someone over to ask what it was. I told him it was some of the Prophet’s hair. When they started tearing my shirt off, al-Mu‘taṣim told them to stop and they pulled it off me without ripping it. I think he held back because of the hair that was knotted up inside.

Sitting down on a chair, al-Mu‘taṣim called for the posts and the whips. They brought out the posts and made me stretch out my arms. From behind me someone said, “Hold on to the tusks and pull,” but I didn’t understand, so I ended up spraining both my wrists.

[Al-Būshanjī:] They say that when Aḥmad was suspended from the posts, al-Mu‘taṣim, seeing him undaunted, so admired his bravery that he was prepared to be lenient with him; but then Aḥmad ibn Abī Duʾād provoked him, saying, “If you let him go, people will say that you’ve renounced al-Ma’mūn’s creed and are refusing to enforce it.” It was this that pushed al-Mu‘taṣim to go ahead and flog him.

[Aḥmad:] When they brought the whips, al-Mu‘taṣim looked at them and said, “Bring different ones,” which was done. Then he said to the lictors, “Proceed!”

One at a time, they came at me, and struck two lashes apiece, with al-Mu‘taṣim calling out, “Harder, May Allah cut your hand off!” As each one stepped aside another would come up and hit me twice more, with him shouting all the while, “Harder, May Allah cut your hands off!”

After I had been struck nineteen lashes, he—meaning al-Mu‘taṣim—rose from his seat and walked up to me.

“Aḥmad,” he said, “why are you killing yourself? I swear to Allah, I want what’s best for you.”

Then ʿUjayf began jabbing at me with the hilt of his sword. “Do you think you can win against this whole lot?”

“For shame!” someone called out. “The caliph is standing there waiting for you.”

“Amīr al-Mu’minīn!” cried another. “Kill him, and let his blood be on my hands!”

Then more of them chimed in. “Amīr al-Mu’minīn, you’ve been fasting, and now you’re standing in the sun!” [9]

“Come on, Aḥmad,” he said. “Say something!”

“Give me something I can believe,” I said, “from the Book of Allah or the Sunnah of His Messenger .”

He went back to his chair and sat down.

“Proceed,” he said to the lictor. “Let him feel it, may Allah cut off your hand!”

Soon he rose a second time, saying, “Come on, Aḥmad! Tell me what I want to hear.”

The others joined in, saying, “Shame on you, Aḥmad: your imam is standing here waiting for you.”

“Which of your associates,” asked ʿAbd al-Raḥmān, “is doing what you’re doing?”

“Tell me whatever you can manage,” al-Mu‘taṣim said to me, “and I’ll unchain you with my own hands.”

“Give me something I can believe,” I said, “from the Book of Allah or the Sunnah of His Messenger

Again he went back to his chair and sat down. “Proceed,” he said to the lictors. Again they came up one by one and struck me two lashes apiece, with al-Mu‘taṣim calling out, “Harder, may Allah cut off your hand!” As each stepped aside another would come up and hit me twice more, with him shouting all the while, “Harder, may Allah cut off your hands!”

That’s when I passed out.

Some time later I came to my senses to find that my chains had been removed.

“We threw you face down,” said one of the men who had been there. “Then we rolled you over on the ground and trampled you.”

I had no memory of that.

They brought me some barley water and told me to drink it and vomit.

“I can’t break the fast,” I told them.

They took me back to Isḥāq ibn Ibrahīm’s place, where I attended the noon prayer. Ibn Samā‘ah stepped forward to lead the prayer. When he finished he asked me, “How could you pray when you’re bleeding inside your clothes?” 

“ʿUmar prayed with blood spurting from his wounds,” I answered.

Ṣāliḥ said:

My father was released and went home. From the time he was first arrested to the time he was flogged and let go was twenty-eight months.

One of the two men who were with my father—in jail, that is—heard and saw everything. Later he came to see me and said, “Cousin, may Allah have mercy on Abū ‘Abd Allāh! I never saw anyone like him. When they sent food in, I would remind him that he was fasting, and tell him he was allowed to save himself.I also remember that he was thirsty. He asked the attendant for something to drink. The man gave him a cup of water with ice in it. He took it and looked at it for a moment, but then he gave it back without drinking it. I was amazed that he could go without food or water even in that terrifying place.”

Ṣālīḥ said:

At the time, I was doing everything I could to smuggle some food or a loaf or two of flatbread in to him, but none of my pleading did any good.

A man who was there told me that he kept his eye on him for the entire three days, and not once during all the argument and debate did he mispronounce a single word. “I didn’t think it was possible for anyone to be as tough as he was.”

[Al-Būshanjī:] Al-Muʿtaṣim returned to Baghdad from the Byzantine front in Ramadan of ’18. It was then that he tried Aḥmad and had him flogged before him.

A trustworthy associate of mine reported to me what he was told by Ibrāhīm ibn Muṣ‘ab, who at that time was standing in for Isḥāq ibn Ibrāhīm as al-Mu‘taṣim’s chief of police: “I’ve never seen anyone brought face to face with kings and princes show as little fear as Aḥmad did that day. To him we were nothing but a cloud of flies.”

[Al-Zuhrī:] I read from my own notes what al-Marrūdhī said at the trial of Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal, as Aḥmad was hanging between the posts.

“Master,” said al-Marrūdhī, “Allah says, «Do not kill yourselves.»” [4:30]

“Marrūdhī,” said Aḥmad, “go and look outside and tell me what you see.”

Al-Marrūdhī reported: “I went out and there, in the courtyard of the caliph’s palace, was a vast crowd of people—Allah only knows how many—with their sheets of paper, their pens, and their pots of ink. I asked them what they were doing, and they said, ‘We’re waiting to hear what Aḥmad says so we can write it down.’”

He told them to stay where they were, then went back inside, where Aḥmad was still hanging between the posts. He told him that he had seen a crowd of people holding pen and paper and waiting to write down whatever he would say.

“Can I mislead all those people?” asked Aḥmad. “That is deadlier in my mind.”

[Ibn al-Jawzi:] Here then is a man who, like Bilāl, was willing to give up his life for the sake of Allah. Of Sa‘īd ibn al-Musayyab, similarly, it is reported that his life meant as little to him as the life of a fly. Such indifference to self is possible only when one has glimpsed the life that lies beyond this one and trained one’s gaze on the future rather than the present. Aḥmad’s great suffering is evidence of of the strength of his dīn, for, as the Prophet is known to have said, “A man suffers in proportion to his dīn.” Praise the One who helped Aḥmad, granted him the gift of perception, strengthened his resolve, and came to his aid.

[Ibn al-Aṣbagh:] I was in Baghdad and heard a clamor. I asked what it was about and people told me that Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal was being tried… Inside the palace, I saw soldiers with their swords drawn, their spears fixed, their shields planted, and their whips at the ready. I was fitted out with a black cloak, a sash, and a sword, and given a seat close enough that I could hear what was being said.    

The caliph appeared and seated himself in a chair. Then Ibn Ḥanbal was brought in.

“I swear by my ancestor the Prophet,” said the caliph, “that if you don’t say as I say, I’ll have you flogged!”

Turning to the lictor, he said, “Take him away!”

At the first blow, Aḥmad said, “In the name of Allah!”

At the second, he said, “There is no might or power except by Allah!”

At the third, he said, “The Qur‘an is the speech of Allah, and uncreated!”

At the fourth he said, “«Say: we will suffer only what God has decreed for us!»”[9:51]

The lictor had struck him twenty-nine lashes when Aḥmad’s trouser cord—which was made of nothing more than a strip of garment lining—broke. His trousers slipped down as far as his groin.

“He’ll be left with nothing on,” I thought to myself. But then he looked up to the heavens and moved his lips. Instantly the trousers stopped slipping and remained in place.

Seven days later, I went to see him. “Aḥmad,” I asked, “I was there the day they beat you and your trousers came apart. I saw you look up and move your lips. What were you saying?”

He said, “I said, ‘Allah, I call You by Your name, which has filled the Throne! If You know me to be in the right, do not expose my nakedness.’”

[Aḥmad ibn al-Faraj:] I was there when Aḥmad was whipped. Abū l-Dann came up and struck him more than ten lashes. Blood started pouring from his shoulders. He was wearing a pair of trousers, and the cord broke. I noticed that as the trousers began to come down, he said something inaudible and they went back up.

Later I asked him about it, and he told me what he had said: “‘My God and Lord, You’ve put me here, and now You’re going to expose my nakedness to the world?’ That’s when my trousers came back up.”

[Al-Qurashī:] When they brought Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal forward to be flogged, they stripped him of everything but his trousers. As he was being flogged, the trousers came loose. His lips moved, and then I saw two hands appear from under him as he was being whipped and pull the trousers back up. When the flogging was over, we asked him what he had said when the trousers came loose. He told us, “I said, ‘I call on You who alone knows where Your Throne is. If I’m in the right, do not expose my nakedness.’ That’s what I said.”

[Al-Rāzī:] Isḥāq ibn Ibrāhīm used to say, “By Allah, I was there the day Aḥmad was flogged and his trousers came down and went up again, and reknotted themselves after coming loose. The people there with him were too preoccupied to notice. But I never saw a more terrible day for al-Muʿtaṣim. If he hadn’t stopped the flogging, he would never have made it out alive.”

[Al-Anṣārī:] I heard one of the lictors say, “Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal turned out to be as tough as a bandit. If a camel knelt down and I hit it as hard as I hit him, I would have split open its belly.”

[Shābāṣ:] I struck Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal eighty lashes. If I’d hit an elephant that hard I would’ve knocked it down…

 [Yaḥyā ibn Nuʿaym:] As Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal was being taken out to al-Mu‘taṣim to be flogged, the officer escorting him said, “Go ahead and curse whoever did this to you!”

 “Cursing your oppressor,” said Aḥmad, “shows a lack of fortitude.”

[Al-Baghawī:] I saw Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal going into the mosque of al-Manṣūr wearing a green over-garment, his sandals in his hand, bare-headed. To me he looked to be a tall, dark-skinned, white-bearded old man. Sitting in the gallery of the minaret were members of the caliph’s entourage. When they saw him, they came down to pay their respects. Kissing his head and hands, they said, “Curse the one who mistreated you.”

“Cursing your oppressor,” said Aḥmad, “shows a lack of fortitude.”

[Aḥmad:] When they took me to the palace I went without food for two days. After they flogged me they brought me some barley water, but I didn’t have any so as not to break my fast…

[Ibn al-Jawzī)The Prophet said: “There will come a time when anyone who suffers bravely for his dīn will be rewarded fifty times more than you.”

“More than us?” asked his Companions.

“Yes,” he said, repeating it three times.

[Al-Shāfiʿī:] “The hardest three things are these: being generous when you have little, being scrupulous when you’re alone, and speaking truth to power.” 

[Abū Zur‘ah:] I always used to hear people speaking highly of Ibn Ḥanbal and giving him precedence over Yaḥyā ibn Ma‘īn and Abū Khaythamah, though never as much as after he was tried. After he was tried, his reputation knew no bounds.

[Ibn Abī ʿAbd al-Raḥmān:] I heard Aḥmad ibn Yūnus recite the Hadith: “In the Garden are palaces open only to prophets, truth-tellers, or those given power over their own souls.”

 Someone asked, “Who are ‘those given power over their own souls’?”

“Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal, for example,” he replied…

 

[Ja‘far ibn Abī Hāshim:] Ibn Ḥanbal was in jail through ’17, ’18, and ’19, and was let out in Ramadan… 

[Ibn al-Ḥārith:] Abū Muḥammad al-Ṭufāwī asked Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal to tell him what they had done to him.

“After they had flogged me,” said Aḥmad, “that one with the long beard”—meaning ‘Ujayf—“came up and jabbed me with the hilt of his sword. I remember thinking it was finally over. Let him cut my throat so I can rest!”

“Ibn Samāʿah said to the caliph, ‘Amīr al-Mu’minīn! Behead him and let his blood be on my hands.’

“But then Ibn Abī Dū’ād said, ‘Amīr al-Mu’minīn: better not to! If you kill him here or let him die inside the palace, they’ll say he held out till the end. They’ll make a hero of him and they’ll think they’ve been proven right. No: let him go right away. If he dies outside they won’t know what happened. Some will say he resisted but no one will know for sure.’”

[Abū Zur‘ah:] Al-Mu‘taṣim summoned Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal’s uncle and asked the people, “Do you know who this is?”

“Yes,” they said. “It’s Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal.”

“Look at him. Do you see that he’s unharmed?”

“Yes.”

If he hadn’t done that, I suspect that an unstoppable outburst of violence would have ensued. When he said, “I give him to you unharmed,” the people were mollified.

[Ibn al-Aṣbagh:] Only after a crowd had gathered at the gate and begun to raise an outcry was Ibn Ḥanbal released. The authorities were frightened and let Aḥmad out…

[Muhanna’ ibn Yaḥyā:] I saw Yaʿqūb ibn Ibrāhīm ibn Sa‘d al-Zuhrī kissing Aḥmad on the forehead and the face after he was released from jail. I also saw Sulaymān ibn Dāwūd al-Hāshimī kissing his head and forehead.

[Al-Jarawī:] I said to al-Ḥārith ibn Miskīn: “That man”—meaning Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal—“is being flogged. Come on: let’s go to him.”

We arrived just as he was being flogged. Later he told us, “After they beat me I fell down and I heard that one”—meaning Ibn Abī Duʾād—“saying, ‘Amīr al-Mu’minīn, he’s gone astray, and will lead others astray.’”

Al-Ḥārith remarked: “Yūsuf ibn ʿUmar ibn Yazīd told me, citing Mālik ibn Anas, that al-Zuhrī was maliciously denounced to the authorities and then flogged. When he was told that al-Zuhrī had been subjected to a public inquisition with his books hanging around his neck, Mālik said, ‘Sa‘īd ibn al-Musayyab was flogged, and had his hair and beard shaved off. Abū l-Zinād and Muḥammad ibn al-Munkadir were also flogged. ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Azīz once said, “Do not envy anyone who hasn’t suffered for Islam.”’ And Mālik didn’t even mention himself.”

Aḥmad was impressed with what al-Ḥārith told him.

[Ibn al-Jawzī:] People have always suffered through ordeals for the sake of Allah. Many prophets were killed; and among the ancient nations, many good people were killed or immolated, with some of them being sawed in half without renouncing their faith. If not for my aversion to prolixity and my preference for brevity, I would list the reports I have in mind, along with their chains of transmission.

The Prophet, God bless and keep him, was poisoned, as was Abū Bakr. ‘Umar, ‘Uthmān, and ‘Alī were assassinated. Al-Ḥasan was poisoned, and al-Ḥusayn, Ibn al-Zubayr, al-Ḍaḥḥāk ibn Qays, and al-Nu‘mān ibn Bashīr were assassinated. Khubayb ibn ‘Adī was crucified. Al-Ḥajjāj executed ʿAbd al-Raḥmān ibn Abī Laylā, ‘Abd Allāh ibn Ghālib al-Ḥuddānī, Saʿīd ibn Jubayr, Abū l-Bakhtarī l-Ṭāʾī, Kumayl ibn Ziyād, and Ḥuṭayṭ al-Zayyāt. He also crucified Māhān al-Ḥanafī, and before him Ibn al-Zubayr. And al-Wāthiq killed and crucified Aḥmad ibn Naṣr al-Khuzā‘ī. 

Among the great scholars who were flogged is ‘Abd al-Raḥmān ibn Abī Laylā, who was struck four hundred lashes and then executed by Ibn al-Ḥajjāj. 

Another is Sa‘īd ibn al-Musayyab, who was struck one hundred lashes by ‘Abd al-Malik ibn Marwān for refusing to swear allegiance to al-Walīd in Madina. At ʿAbd al-Malik’s orders, he was flogged, drenched with water on a cold day, and dressed in a woolen cloak [10]

Another is Khubayb ibn ʿAbd Allāh ibn al-Zubayr, who was struck a hundred lashes by ʿUmar ibn ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz at the command of al-Walīd, all for reciting a Hadith where the Prophet [] says, “When the descendants of Abū l-ʿĀṣ reach thirty in number, they will make God’s servants their own, and take turns plundering His treasury.”

Whenever ʿUmar was told, “Rejoice!” he would reply, “How can I rejoice with Khubayb blocking my way?” [11]

Others include Abū l-Zinād, who was flogged by the Umayyads; Abū ʿAmr ibn al-‘Alāʾ, struck five hundred lashes by the Umayyads; Rabiʿat al-Raʾy, flogged by the Umayyads; Aṭiyyah al-‘Awfī, struck four hundred lashes by al-Ḥajjāj; Yazīd al-Ḍabbī, struck four hundred lashes by al-Ḥajjāj; Thābit al-Bunānī, flogged by Ibn al-Jārūd, the deputy of Ibn Ziyād; ʿAbd Allāh ibn ‘Awn, struck seventy lashes by Bilāl ibn Abī Burdah; Mālik ibn Anas, struck seventy lashes by al-Manṣūr for saying that a person who swears an oath under compulsion is not bound by it; and Abū l-Sawwār al-‘Adawī and ‘Uqbah ibn ‘Abd al-Ghāfir, who were both flogged.

Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal thus had a formidable list of exemplars.

[Ibn al-Jawzi, Manāqib Imām Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal, pp. 416 to 464. Click here for Arabic text]

Notes

[1] “Saudi” Arabia is a construct of the British Foreign Office, so we will not use that name here

[2] The Mu‘tazilites were a heretical sect who were influenced by Greek philosophy

[3]That is the first three generations of Muslims

[4] Imam Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal here recited the second part of the verse, which the Mu‘tazilite ruler omitted. The heretical sect to which the latter belonged denied some of Allah’s attributes and so glossed over some parts of the Qur’an

[5] In this verse and the one cited just before, the verb ja‘ala, as Ibn Ḥanbal points out, means “to make” in the sense of “cause to have a certain attribute”. It does not mean “to create”.

[6] The point is that the expression “everything” is not always categorical

[7] That is, the scholars summoned to al-Raqqah at the beginning of the Inquisition to be questioned regarding the Qur’an. All of them reportedly agreed to say it was created.

[8] The point is that one needs Hadith in order to understand the Qur’an properly. This was Ibn Ḥanbal’s reply to those who sought to dismiss Hadith as a source of knowledge.

[9] Al-Mu‘tasim would have been sitting under a shade; when he got up to address Ibn Ḥanbal, he would have been exposing himself to the sun.

[10] The rough cloak would shrink painfully after being drenched. Sa‘īd ibn al-Musayyab did not obey the Caliph as it is prohibited to give the bay‘ah (pledge of allegiance) to more than one person at any one time [the latter wanted people to give bay‘ah to his son al-Walīd while ‘Abd al-Malik was still the Caliph].

[11] ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Azīz refers here to a regrettable incident which occurred while he was a governor, before he became the Caliph.

NB
Hudhayfa ibn al-Yaman reported: The Messenger of Allah said:

“Imams after me will come who do not follow my guidance and my SunnahSome of their men will have the hearts of devils in a human body.”

I said, “O Messenger of Allah, what should I do if I live to see that time?” The Prophet said:

“You should listen and obey them even if the Amir strikes your back and takes your wealth, even still listen and obey.” [Sahih Muslim #1847]

‘Ali related that the Prophet said:

“There is no obedience to anyone if it involves disobedience to Allah. Verily, obedience is only in good conduct.” [Sahih al-Bukhari #6630]

However, obedience is only to the bona fide Caliph/Imam (who does not exist at present). For more on this subject please see the article Are Muslims Required to Obey Tyrant Rulers?

One thought on “How Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal Stood up to Tyrannical Rulers

  1. Toda alabanza proviene de al-Lah y regresa a El, bendición y paz sea con Muhammad el mensajero de al-Lah, que al-Lah tenga misericordia con Imam Ahmad; la paz y la bendición y la misericordia de al-Lah sea con vosotros, que al-Lah les recompense con un gran bien.

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