The Early Ahlul-Hadīth and their Books in Defence of the Salafi Creed: Imām Ahmad bin Hanbal
All thanks and praise is due to Allah, we seek His help and forgiveness. We seek refuge in Allah from the evil within ourselves and the consequences of our evil deeds. Whoever Allah guides will never be led astray, and whomever Allah leads astray will never find guidance. I bear witness that there is no one worthy of worship except Allah, alone without any partners, and I bear witness that Muhammad (salallāhu ‘alaihi wasallam) is His servant and Messenger.
Verily, the most truthful speech is the Book of Allah, the best guidance is the guidance of Muhammad (salallāhu’ alaihi wasallam) and the worst affairs are the newly invented matters. Every newly invented matter is a religious innovation, and every religious innovation is misguidance, and every misguidance is in the Hellfire.
We begin today a book that has several explanations from the major scholars, and its importance is as great today, or even greater now in our time, as it was when it was first penned down by the great imāms of the Salaf, as they took it from their sheikh, the Imam of Ahlus-Sunnah wal Jamā’ah, Abu Abdillah Ahmad bin Muhammad bin Hanbal (rahimahullah).
Before we embark upon the explanation of this great work, we will mention some aspects of the biography of this great scholar of Islam, the great Imām of Ahlus Sunnah, Imām Ahmad bin Hanbal, and his efforts in knowledge and teaching, his students and those he studied under inshā Allah.
The explanation that we will be taking from primarily is the Explanation of Usool us-Sunnah by Sheikh Ahmad bin Yahya an-Najmee (rahimahullah) who is from the great scholars of Islām of our era.
For further benefit, I will also take from the works of other scholars from the Imāms of our era, namely ‘Allāmah Zaid bin Muhammad al-Madkhali (rahimahullah) and ‘Allāmah Rabee’ bin Hādi bin Umayr al-Madkhali, the carrier of the flag of al-Jarh wat-Ta’deel in our era (may Allah preserve him). I will also take from the sayings of the people of knowledge to give extra explanation and clarity to this tremendous work.
As mentioned earlier, the need for this work is even greater today, because when it was written, the great scholars of Islām from the early Salaf were present, who defended the borders that were encroached upon the Sunnah by Ahlul Bid’ah who tried to dilute and challenge the ‘Aqeedah of Ahlus-Sunnah wal Jamā’ah; and from the Imāms who stood for the truth was Imām Ahmad bin Hanbal.
No doubt we have scholars and Imāms in our time such as Sheikh al-Fawzān, Sheikh Rabee’, Sheikh Abdul Muhsin and Sheikh ‘Ubayd and other than them (may Allah preserve them) yet alongside their great virtue and knowledge, they are not of the calibre of the early Salaf. And deviations in our times have increased, and there is more ignorance today compared to the time of the early Salaf. Therefore the scholars of today, the carriers of this blessed da’wah, rely upon the works of the early Salaf and explain them in order to clarify the true ‘Aqeedah.
Imām Ahmad bin Hanbal said in the opening of another of his works on ’Aqeedah titled Ar-radd ‘alal Jahmeeyah waz-Zanādiqah (a refutation of the Jahmiyah and the Zanādiqah): All praise is due to Allah, who in every age between the messengers raises a group from the People of Knowledge. Those who call the misguided ones to guidance, and they bear patiently the harm that they receive. These scholars give life by the Book of Allah the Most High, to those who have died, and by the light of Allah they give sight to the blind – so how many who were killed by Iblees have they given life to, and how many who were led astray have they guided, and how fine has been their effect upon the people, and how vile have the people (those in opposition to the Sunnah) been towards them. It is these scholars who expel from the Book of Allah the tahreef of the ghaaleen (the distortions of those who go beyond bounds), and the assertions of the mubtileen (the liars) and the ta’weel of the jāhileen (the false interpretations of the ignorant). Those who uphold the banner of innovation, they let loose the reigns of discord and trial and they differ concerning the Book of Allah. They oppose it, and they are in agreement in their departing from the Book, and they speak about Allah and concerning the Book of Allah without knowledge. They discuss and debate using unclear and ambiguous speech. They deceive the ignorant people using that which is unclear and ambiguous to them. So we seek refuge with Allah the Most High from the fitnah of the misguided. (End)
This introduction explains the role of the ‘ālim, the scholar, and the ‘ulemah in every age from the time of the messengers. And after our Prophet (salallāhu ‘alaihi wasallam), it is no different; it is the scholars who are raised in every generation who call the misguided to guidance––those who by the light of Allah the Most High, give sight to the blind––because the ignorant ones are blind, they have no ‘ilm, no insight, no baseerah. So the scholars open their eyes and their hearts. How many have been killed by Iblees? How many are there whose hearts have been killed and corrupted by him? Then Allah guides these individuals to an ‘ālim, an Imām of the Sunnah––this is shown by the statements of the scholars of the Salaf such as Yusuf ibn Asbāt, whose father and paternal uncles were from the Rāfidah and Qadariyyah, but then Allah guided him by way of Sufyan (rahimahullāh).
So Allah raises these lighthouses and illuminaries of ‘ilm, who are landmarks and milestones, who give so much of their time and effort for the people––guiding those who are astray by the permission of Allah, those who were wandering and following the Shayateen from amongst the mankind and the Jinn––yet the ignorant people and the innovators are vile towards the scholars with their speech. These scholars are the ones who resemble the Prophets, as the Prophet (salallāhu ‘alaihi wasallam) said: “Those who are tried the most are the Prophets, then those who resemble them, then those who resemble them.”
So the scholars are tried just as the Prophets were tried. These scholars of the early Salaf from the 1st, 2nd and 3rd century, entering into the 4th century, the golden era of Islām, where the books of Hadeeth, ‘Aqeedah and Fiqh were written and the religion was codified. The era of Imām Bukhāri, Muslim, Abu Dāwud, Tirmidhi and Ibn Mājah. Before them was Ahmad bin Hanbal in his compilation of the Musnad and Imām Mālik before him in his compilation of the Muwatta––these ‘ulema gathered the narrations of the early Salaf. And it is the early Salaf we are concerned with as the Prophet (salalāhu ‘alaihi wasallam) said: “The best of mankind are my generation, then those who come after them, then those who come after them.”
Many of these scholars wrote books in ‘Aqeedah in order to keep the religion pure and pristine, and to clarify the ‘Aqeedah of the muslims according to the Kitāb and the Sunnah and the way of the Sahābah (may Allah be pleased with them) and to refute Ahlul Bid’ah.
This book which we will be studying inshā Allah, by Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal (d. 241H) is an example of these books. Usool us Sunnah, or the Foundations of the Sunnah. The term Sunnah here refers to the ‘Aqeedah and Manhaj, the usool of the deen, that which the religion is built upon, without which there is no Islam.The following is a list of just some of the books of ‘Aqeedah written by the scholars of the Salaf, illustrating the importance they gave to clarifying the ‘Aqeedah and refuting Ahlul Bid’ah:
As-Sunnah of al-Athram (d. 273H), a student of Imām Ahmad, Kitāb us-Sunnah of Abu Dawud As-Sijistāni (d. 275H), the compiler of the Sunan, Kitāb us-Sunnah of Ibn Abee ‘Aasim (d287H), Aslus-Sunnah wa I’tiqaad ud-Deen of the Rāziyayn by Abu Zur’ah ar-Rāzi (d. 277H) and Abu Hātim ar-Rāzi (d264H), As-Sunnah of al-Marwazi (d. 292H), Kitāb us-Sunnah of Ibn Mājah (d. 273H), Sareehus-Sunnah of Ibn Jarir at-Tabari (d.310H), As-Sunnah of al-Khallāl (d. 311H), Sharhus-Sunnah of Imām al-Barbahāri (d. 329H), As-Sunnah of Al-Assāl (d. 349H), As-Sunnah of At-Tabarāni (d. 360H) and many others.
Some books of ‘Aqeedah did not have the word ‘Sunnah’ in their title but were still books on Creed. Examples of these are Kitāb ut-Tawheed of Ibn Khuzaymah (d. 311H), Kitābul-Imān of Ibn Mandah (d. 395H), Ash-Sharī’ah of Imām al-Aajurri (d. 360H), Al-Hā’iyyah of Ibn Abee Dāwud As-Sijistāni (d. 316H), ‘Aqeedatus-Salaf Ashābul-Hadeeth of Imām As-Sābooni (d. 449H), Sharh Usool ‘Itiqād Ahlus-Sunnah wal-Jamā’ah of Imām Al-Lālakā’ee (d. 418H), Al-Ibānatus-Sughra and al-Kubrah of Ibn Battah (d. 387H).
There were other books on ‘Aqeedah written to refute specific false ideologies, clearly showing that the way of the Salaf was to clarify the true ‘Aqeedah and refute and criticise Ahlul-Bid’ah and the innovators. Examples of such books are: Imām Ahmad’s Ar-Radd ‘alal Jahmiyyah waz-Zanādiqah (a refutation of the Jahmeeyah and the Zanādiqah), Naqdu ‘Uthmān bin Sa’eed ‘alal-Mareesi al-Jahmee al-‘Aneed fee maftara ‘alallahi min at-Tawheed of Imām ad-Dārimee (d. 280H) which means: A rebuttal from ‘Uthmān bin Sa’eed ad-Dārimee of Al-Mareesi, the stubbornly obstinate Jahmee, in his lies and fabrications upon the Tawheed of Allah!
It is the likes of these scholars who are truly Ahlul Hadeeth (the People of Hadeeth), just as Imām Ahmad said when he was asked who the saved sect are, he replied, “If they are not Ahlul Hadeeth, then I do not know who they are.”
They are the Tā’ifatul Mansoorah (The Aided Group), those Manifest upon the Truth, as mentioned in the hadeeth of the Prophet (salallāhu ‘alaihi wasallam):
“لا تزال طائفة من أمتي على الحق ظاهرين لا يضرهم من يخذلهم حتى يأتي أمر الله”
“There will not cease to be a group from my Ummah, manifest upon the truth, they are not harmed by those who forsake (and nor those who oppose them) them until the command of Allah comes.” (reported by At-Tirmidhi)
Ali al-Madini (rahimahullāh), who was from the companions of Imam Ahmad, said that the Tā’iafatul Mansoorah are the people of knowledge and narrations (Ahlul-‘ilm wal-Athar). They are the ones who passed down the correct, pure ‘Aqeedah which the Sahabah, 114,000 of them at the time of the death of the Prophet (salallāhu ‘alaihi wasallam) were upon.
THE POSITION OF THE SALAF REGARDING AHLUL BID’AH:
Regarding the verse in surah Aal-’Imrān:
يَوْمَ تَبْيَضُّ وُجُوهٌۭ وَتَسْوَدُّ وُجُوهٌۭ
“On the Day when some faces will become white and some faces will become black..” (3:106)
‘Abdullāh ibn ‘Abbās and ‘Abdullāh ibn ‘Umar (may Allah be pleased with them both) said that the faces that will be blackened are the people of innovation, misguidance and splitting. And Abu Hātim ar-Rāzi said, “The distinguishing sign of Ahlul Bid’ah is that they revile Ahlul Athar.”
Ahmad bin Sinān al-Qatān said, “There is not an innovator in the dunyah,except that he hates the People of Hadeeth, so when a man innovates in the religion, the sweetness of hadeeth is stripped from his heart.”
Qutaybah bin Sa’eed said, “Whosoever opposes Ahlul Hadeeth, then know that he is an innovator.”
Abu ‘Uthmān Isma’eel as-Sābooni said, “From the clear signs of Ahlul Bid’ah, and the most apparent of their features is the severity of their enmity towards those who carry the narrations of Allah’s Messenger (salallāhu ‘alaihi wasallam) and their hatred for them and their belittlement of them.”
Ayoub as-Sakhtiyāni said, “I do not know today anyone from Ahlul Ahwā (the People of Desires) except that he will argue with that which is ambiguous from the revelation.”
In our era, Sheikh Ibn ‘Uthaymeen (rahimahullah) said that the clearest signs of Ahlul Bid’ah are:
- They ascribe to Islām and the Sunnah that which they themselves have innovated, whether in speech or action or belief.
- They are fanatical blind followers of their opinions, and they do not return to the truth even if it is made clear to them.
- They hate the scholars of Islām and the religion.”
Waqee’, who was from the sheikhs of Imam Ahmad (rahimahullah) said, “Whosoever seeks the hadeeth only to strengthen his deviated opinion, then he is a person of Bid’ah.”
The Path of the Salaf
We will begin by mentioning the introduction of Sharh Usool ‘Itiqād Ahlus Sunnah wal Jamā’ah of Imām al-Lālakā’i (d418H rahimahullah) where he said:
“The greatest obligation upon a person is to be acquainted with the ‘Aqeedah (creed) of the religion, and whatever Allah the Most High has obligated upon His servants of comprehending and understanding the Tawheed of Allah, His Attributes, and to believe in His messengers upon guidance and certainty and to reach the knowledge of it through the proofs and evidences.
The clearest of proofs with regard to the ‘Aqeedah can be found by studying the Book of Allah, then the speech of Allah’s Messenger (salallāhu ‘alaihi wasallam) then the speech of the fine and pious companions of the Messenger of Allah (salallāhu ‘alaihi wasallam) and thereafter that which the Salaf us-Saliheen (the righteous Salaf) were united upon. It is upon us to cling to this and remain steadfast upon it until the Day of Recompense, avoiding innovations; those affairs that have been introduced by the misguided ones.”
So the understanding and the knowledge of the religion is a command that has been decreed and demanded by Allah (the Most High) and He has obligated the knowledge of the creed, as is mentioned in the Quran (Surah Muhammad, 47:19):
فَاعْلَمْ أَنَّهُ لَا إِلَٰهَ إِلَّا اللَّهُ
“So know that none has the right to be worshipped but Allah…”
This is a command from Allah for us to learn and know our belief and Tawheed; to know our ‘Aqeedah. Similarly when Jibreel (‘alaihisalām) came to the Prophet (salallāhu ‘alaihi wasallam) in the form of a man, he asked him “What is Islām?” The Prophet (salallāhu ‘alaihi wasallam) answered this question by beginning with the shahādah, which is ‘Aqeedah, to testify that none has the right to be worshipped except Allah, and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah. Then he (Jibreel), asked him regarding Imān, and he replied that Imān is that you believe in Allah, the Angels, the Books,the Messengers, the Last Day and the Pre-decree, its good and its bad. At the end of the hadith, the Prophet (salalāhu ‘alaihi wasallam) asked ‘Umar (radiAllāhu ‘anhu), “Do you know who that was?” He informed him that it was Jibreel (‘alaihis salaam) who came to teach them their religion. So this shows that Allah has obligated upon the people to learn their ‘Aqeedah.
The Salaf us-Sālih began to compile the ‘Aqeedah and to teach it. These compilations were from that which they narrated from their Salaf. For example, the Tābi’een would narrate from the Sahābah and to (their students) the Atbā’ ut-Tābi’een, who in turn would narrate to those who came after them (the 4th generation). They would pen down what they heard and make compilations of books with chapter headings, or even poetry in the ‘Aqeedah. Or they would gather the Hadeeth under the chapter headings of ‘Aqeedah, all of this clearly shows the importance that the early Salaf gave to these affairs. They established the correctness of the ‘Aqeedah so that there would be no avenue for Ahluz Zaygh (the People of Deviation) to corrupt it. This was due to the Salaf of this Ummah having protected the ‘Aqeedah through their writings which became widespread.
The ‘Aqeedah was also protected from the People of Ta’weel, those who gave false interpretations to the texts. So they would take the verses about Allah’s Attributes such as His ‘Uluww (His being High above the throne) and distort (make ta’weel) of them. However, the Salaf of this Ummah protected the religion from such ta’weel and ilhād. For example, the ilhād of the Jahmeeyah and the Mu’tazilah led them to describe Allah as nothing, by removing from Him that which He ascribed to Himself of His Names and Attributes and Actions.
Some of the misguided ones entered into Islaam with the purpose of throwing doubts at the muslims and misguiding them and in order to introduce into Islaam that which was not from it. This plot and this ploy has not ceased till this day. It began in Madinah when a group of the mushrikeen (the polytheists) after realising that this religion could not be opposed, entered into Islaam upon nifāq (hypocrisy). They managed on occasions to throw doubts upon the muslims, but the Prophet (salallāhu ‘alaihi wasallam) would clarify these doubts.
The hypocrites knew that they would never be able to fight Islām from the outside and that the way to ruin Islām was to enter into it, and then corrupt it from within. So the scholars of the Ummah stood up to explain and clarify the sound ‘Aqeedah from the intrusions that were made against it. They opposed and resisted the misguided beliefs and innovations that entered the religion. They did so either through refutation of Bid’ah and explaining all the fabricated ascriptions to Islām, or by presenting the sound, authentic, pure creed as it was revealed to Muhammad (salallāhu ‘alaihi wasallam)
Some of the treatises written by the scholars were only a few pages long, such as the poem “Al-Hā’iyyah,” by Ibn Abee Dāwud as-Sijistāni (rahimahullah), whereas others were large works such as Imām ad-Dārimi’s “Ar-Radd ‘alal Bishr al-Mareesi.” There were also the likes of this work “Usool us-Sunnah,” a small booklet by Imām Ahmad bin Hanbal, and others even smaller, such as “Aslus-Sunnah,” of the Rāziyayn. All of these were powerful writings based upon proofs from the Book of Allah and the Sunnah of His Messenger (salallāhu ‘alaihi wasallam) and from verifiable, trustworthy narrations. Through them, Allah protected and preserved this religion and established the proof, and through them Allah restrained the people of falsehood and innovation.
This work, Usool us-Sunnah of Imām Ahmad bin Hanbal, is from the most important works of Salafiyyah which present the foundations of the affairs connected to the ‘Aqeedah. Imām Ahmad was from the scholars of Hadeeth, and it was these scholars, who focused on the books of ‘Aqeedah. Alongside Imām Ahmad, there were the likes of al-Barbahāri, al-Khallāl, Ibn Abi ‘Aasim, ad-Dārimi, Abu Dāwud, at-Tirmidhi, Ibn Mājah, al-Muzani and others. These were all scholars of Hadeeth, not people of ra’ee (opinion) or hawaa (desires); they were not from any of the deviated sects, rather they were of those who explained the path of the righteous whom they followed, thus spreading the knowledge.
This book has such a great standing that many scholars included it in their books, scholars such as Imām Abul- Qāsim Hibatullaah al-Lālikā’ee (rahimahullah d. 418H), in his great work:
“ شرح أصول اعتقاد أهل السنة والجماعة من الكتاب والسنة وإجماع الصحابة والتابعين من بعدهم”
“The explanation of the foundations of the creed from the Book of Allah and the Sunnah and from the agreement of the Sahābah and the Tābi’een who came after them.”
So in this tremendous work, Imām al-Lālikā’ee narrated the treatise of Imām Ahmad (Usool us-Sunnah) under a great chapter heading: “A contextualisation of that which has been reported of narrations from the salaf in the entirety of the belief of Ahlus Sunnah, and to cling to that, and the instruction (waseeyah) to preserve and protect it generation after generation.”
Likewise, from those who have narrated Usool us-Sunnah is ‘Abdoos bin Mālik, rahimahullah (a student and close companion of Imām Ahmad) in his biography. Also, al-Khallāl (rahimahullah) has narrated it in the tremendous work Tabaqāt al Hanābilah. This is the case with all of the books of Salafiyyah, that they are preserved and can be authentically ascribed back to their authors from amongst the Salaf, despite the People of Desires claiming otherwise. One such claim is that of the Ashā’irah who say that the latter books of Abul Hasan al-Ash’ari are not ascribed to him, and they say this because these books refute the Ash’ari ‘aqeedah. They are upon what Abul Hasan al-Ash’ari was upon before his tawbah, where he used to follow Ibn Kullāb in his deviations regarding the Names and Attributes of Allah.
Sheikh Ahmad an-Najmi’s explanation of Usool us-Sunnah is easy in its style, simple in its method, yet detailed in its subject matter: it is a very powerful and clear explanation. His students transcribed the lectures when the explanation was given and presented it to the Sheikh after formatting it, structuring it and referencing the Ayāt. In their introduction they quote from the above great work of Imam al-Lālikā’i’ in a summarized form:
“So let us come now to the religiosity of the followers of the Sunnah; the conduct of the steadfast adherents to the path of the early Salaf and how they were with respect to the Book of Allah and the Sunnah of His Prophet (salalāhu ‘alaihi wasalam) – callers to His Sharee’ah and to His Wisdom (i.e. the Sunnah), and those who said, (3:53):
رَبَّنَا آمَنَّا بِمَا أَنزَلْتَ وَاتَّبَعْنَا الرَّسُولَ فَاكْتُبْنَا مَعَ الشَّاهِدِينَ
“O Our Lord, we have believed in what You have sent and we followed the Messenger, so record us amongst those who bore witness.”
The early Salaf and Ahlus Sunnah turned away from the path of those who denied the Names and Attributes of Allah, (the deniers of the Tawheed of the Lord of all creation). The Salaf took the Book of Allah as the guide, and His Ayāt as the criteria. They placed the truth before their eyes in clear sight and took the Sunnah of Allah’s Messenger (salallāhu ‘alaihi wasallam) as a shield and a weapon. They received wisdom and were protected from the evil of desires and innovations. This was all due to their following the commandments of Allah and the Sunnah of the Messenger (salallāhu ‘alaihi wasalam), and because they avoided and abandoned disputation and falsehood that came to challenge the truth, and to falsify it.
We ask Allah the Most High to show us the truth, as it is, and to guide us to follow it, and to show us the reality of falsehood and to lead us to avoid it, and not to allow falsehood to deceive us so that we are misguided, ameen yā Rabb!
Imām Ahmad bin Hanbal was, without doubt, the Imām of his generation, in fact, there is none of his calibre from his time, till this time of ours, as the scholars have mentioned. Not in terms of his knowledge, nor his steadfastness, nor his defence of the Sunnah, nor in him not fearing the blame of the blamers, nor in suffering in the path of Allah, the Most High. This is why there is so much praise for this great Imām, such that some of the Salaf such as ‘Ali al- Madini and others would say, “Indeed Allah saved the religion on the Day of Riddah (apostasy), by way of Abu Bakr as-Siddiq (radi’ Allahu ‘anhu), and Alah saved the religion on the Day of the Trial (inquisition) by way of Ahmad bin Hanbal.” Bishr bin Hārith al-Hāfi (d. 227H, rahimahullah) stated, “I am asked about Ahmad bin Hanbal. Ahmad bin Hanbal was cast into a furnace and he came out as purified red gold.”
Imām Ahmad was thrown into trials and tribulations, but after every trial he came out purer, and the people came out upon clarity. He spoke with the speech of Allah and the Sunnah of Allah’s Messenger (salallāhu ‘alaihi wasallam), and he did not fear those who accused him or punished him or abandoned him. He was the Jamā’ah of his era as is shown by what Imām adh-Dhahabi (rahimahullah) mentions in Siyar ‘Alām an-Nubalah, that Abul Hasan al-’Ashari came to Imām al-Barbahāri, almost a century after the passing away of Imām Ahmad, and he said: “I am Abul Hasan, do you not see that I have refuted them and I have written against them?” meaning the Mu’tazilah and others, and he mentioned the books that he wrote. Whereupon Imām al-Barbahāri turned his back on him saying, “I do not know what you are talking about (in your books). As for us, we are upon the ‘Aqeedah of Ahmad bin Muhammad bin Hanbal.” This was because to be a Hanbali in that era meant that you were upon the path of the Sahābah (radiAllahu ‘anhum), and upon their ‘Aqeedah without compromise.
Much of this article was transcribed by Umm Maryam (may Allah reward her) from the classes of Abu Khadeejah.