Ramadan is often referred to as ‘the month of the Qur’an’. Many Muslims around the world take the opportunity during this month to reconnect with the Qur’an, as they believe that it has been safeguarded by God so that it can remain an unchanged and timeless source of guidance for humanity.
However, the important role of many individuals in the history of the preservation of the Qur’an is often forgotten. One of these was Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. 855), a scholar of kalām (theology) and hadīth (Prophetic narrations) who is best known as the founder of the Hanbali school of Islamic jurisprudence.
The dispute on the createdness of the Qur’an
By Ramadan of the year of 833, ibn Hanbal had been imprisoned for nearly two years by the ‘Abbāsid caliphs. The caliph al-Ma’mūn, known as being the great patron of the flourishing of knowledge and cultural activity that took place during his reign, had near the end of his life adopted the Mu‘tazila school of Islamic theology. One component of this position was the belief that the Qur’an is a creation of Allah as opposed to being the uncreated, literal speech of Allah.
This may seem like a moot point today, but it did (and still does) have important implications for the authority and integrity of the Qur’an. In the view of Ahmad ibn Hanbal and many other leader scholars of his time, not only was there no evidence in the Qur’an or the narrations of Prophet Muhammad, that could serve as sufficient evidence for the Mu‘tazila opinion, but to say that the Qur’an is created, would decrease its authority as Allah’s timeless message to humanity.
The fine points of the theological debate on this question are not important to this article, though it should be noted that the Ash’ari school of theology—which maintains that the Qur’an is uncreated and timeless—ultimately triumphed over the Mu‘tazila. Instead, this article is meant as a reminder of Imam Ahmad’s courage, displayed at its best during the month of Ramadan, against the highly questionable policies of the ‘Abbāsid caliphs al-Ma’mūn (d. 833) and al-Muʿtasim (d. 842).
The Caliph’s attempt to make his beliefs the new norm
Al-Ma’mūn was heavily influenced by the Mu‘tazila. In April of 833, just four months before his unexpected death while on a military campaign, he had written a letter to his deputy Ishāq ibn Ibrāhīm, instructing him to gather the Islamic scholars in the major cities of the empire and ask them about their beliefs on the question of the createdness of the Qur’an. Many of the scholars expressed their agreement with the “official” (i.e. Mu‘tazila) position, and they were made to acknowledge this in public and then left alone.
Ahmad ibn Hanbal and another scholar, Muhammad ibn Nūh, both refused to agree with al-Ma’mūn’s position until they were given sufficient evidence from the Qur’an or the narrations of Prophet Muhammad. They were both chained and sent to meet al-Ma’mūn in person, who was campaigning on the Byzantine frontier at the time. However, before they reached al-Ma’mūn, he passed away, thus they were sent back to Baghdad, but Muhammad ibn Nūh passed away during the journey. Imam Ahmad made it back and was imprisoned.
Al-Ma’mūn’s successor, known as al-Muʿtasim, did not have the same intellectual interests that al-Ma’mūn had. Al-Muʿtasim was thus hesitant to punish ibn Hanbal for falling out of line with the official theology of the ‘Abbāsids, even though it seems that he personally didn’t care much for the debate. However, al-Ma’mūn had left him surrounded by Mu‘tazila advisors, one of whom, Abu Du’ād, urged al-Muʿtasim to pressure Imam Ahmad to give in by any means necessary. However, after being imprisoned for more than a year, Imam Ahmad refused to compromise.
When Ahmad took a look outside the royal court, he saw a crowd of Imam Ahmad’s students gathered, hoping to learn from him and record what he said if these happened to be his final moments. When Marrūdhī returned, Ibn Hanbal said, “Can I mislead all those people? I’d rather kill myself.”
Eventually, al-Muʿtasim had to make a move. Out of respect, al-Muʿtasim repeatedly asked Imam Ahmad to make any conciliatory statement, even if he did not entirely accept the Mu‘tazila position. However, ibn Hanbal refused to give even that, until and unless he was shown sufficient supporting evidence. They were both aware, as was the general public, that Ahmad’s stand had by now become one that was not just about the particular question at hand, but also about the independence of Islamic scholars from the regimes they lived under.
Around the 18th day of Ramadan of the year 834 (or possibly 835), Imam Ahmad was stripped, made it to stand in a painful position, and he was publicly whipped in al-Muʿtasim’s court while fasting in Baghdad’s summertime heat. Abuses were hurled at him by those present. He was whipped until he fell unconscious, and al-Muʿtasim reportedly stopped before he was killed. He was then taken down, allowed to fall on his face, and rolled over on the ground and trampled before being taken to his cell. It was still daytime when he woke up, and he was offered water to drink. However, he refused it, saying, “I can’t break the fast [before iftār].” At that point he had already not eaten for two days.
It is said that just before the punishment began, Marrūdhī, a student of Ibn Hanbal, reminded him anxiously that suicide is harām in Islam, implying that enduring the punishment was suicidal. When Ahmad took a look outside the royal court, he saw a crowd of Imam Ahmad’s students gathered, hoping to learn from him and record what he said if these happened to be his final moments. When Marrūdhī returned, Ibn Hanbal said, “Can I mislead all those people? I’d rather kill myself.”
Later that day, he was taken from prison to the house of Ishāq ibn Ibrāhīm, where he prayed the afternoon prayer while still bleeding inside his clothes. Al-Muʿtasim had ordered his release out of fear that, inspired by Imam Ahmad’s bravery, the people of Baghdad might rise up in revolt against him. As an eyewitness who was in the court later said, “I’ve never seen anyone brought face to face with kings and princes show as little fear as Ahmad did that day. To him we were nothing but a cloud of flies.” Remarkably, Imam Ahmad later said that he had forgiven al-Muʿtasim and his torturers the moment he left the palace, remembering the virtues of forgiving others.
Ahmad ibn Hanbal’s unwavering stand on that day in Ramadan has inspired generations of Muslims, and especially Islamic scholars, to preserve and protect the traditional Islam from encroachment by officious rulers.