Abu Abdullah, Ahmad ibn Hanbal ash-Shaibani, was born in the city of Baghdad in the year 780 CE (164 AH). He studied various subjects in his hometown and traveled extensively in quest of knowledge.
In his great book, ‘Siyar A’lam an-Nubala’, Imam ath-Dhahabi described Ibn Hanbal as, “The true Shaikh of Islam and leader of the Muslims in his time, the hadith master and proof of the religion”.
He was chiefly interested in acquiring knowledge of Ahadeeth and traveled extensively through Iraq, Syria, Arabia and other places in the Middle East studying religion and collecting the ahadeeth of Prophet Muhammad, sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam. His travels occupied several years of his early life.
After returning home, he became a student of Imam Shafi’ee who taught him the subject of Islamic Fiqh and its fundamentals. This and the fact that he was a scholar of hadith, were responsible for his deep devotion to the textual views on Islam, and his opposition to innovation of any kind.
The strength of his faith in Allah and the steadfastness on his understanding of the Deen were tested when under Khalifah al-Mamum and the Khalifah al-Mu’tasim, a Fitnah or a kind of ‘inquisition court’ was created to deal with people among whom were many acknowledged scholars who would not profess the doctrine of “the creation of the Qur’an”. Imam ibn Hanbal too, suffered as a result when he was arrested and brought in chains before the court. But he patiently submitted to corporal punishment and imprisonment and resolutely refused to deviate from his beliefs.
His trial, and the Ummah’s for that matter, was to come to an end on the hands of the Khalifah al-Mutawakkil who did not believe in the doctrine of ‘the creation of the Qur’an’. From then onwards the Imam was accorded honour befitting his greatness. His steadfastness helped preserve the correct Islamic belief regarding the Book of Allah. His fame spread far and wide. His learning, piety and unswerving faithfulness to traditions gathered the Ummah and its scholars around his understanding and teachings. He died in Baghdad in the year 855 CE (241 AH).
Among the works of Imam ibn Hanbal is the great encyclopedia of ahadeeth called al-Musnad, compiled during his life time, completed by his son Abdullah, and amplified by supplements. Al-Musnad contains more than thirty thousand ahadeeh. His other works include ”Kitab-us-Salah”, on the discipline of making salah and “Kitab-us-Sunnah”, on matters of aqueedah as they are understood from the hadith of the prophet, sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam and the sayings and commentaries of the companions of the Prophet, sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam.
Imam ath-Dhahabi related many of the praises stated by the scholars who knew Ibn Hanbal personally. The biography of Ibn Hanbal spread over at least 113 pages of ath-Thahabi’s, “Siyar A’lam an-Nubala”.
Abdullah ibn Ahmad, the Imam’s son, said: “I heard Abu Zur’ata Rrazi say: ‘Your father had memorised a million hadith, which I rehearsed with him according to the topic,’”
Ali ibnul-Madini, the great Imam of Hadeeth said: “Truly, Allah reinforced this religion with Abu Bakr as-Siddiq the day of the great apostasy (ar-Riddah), and He reinforced it with Ahmad ibn Hanbal the day of the Inquisition (al-Mihnah).”
Harmala said: “I heard ash-Shafi’ee say: ‘I left Baghdad and did not leave behind me anyone more virtuous, more learned, and more knowledgeable than Ahmad ibn Hanbal.’”