Hanbalites


Hanbalites
(hanabila)
   Founded by Ahmad ibn Hanbal (164–241/780–855), Hanbalism is a robustly traditionalist school of jurisprudence and theology. The most conservative of the four major Sunni schools of jurisprudence, it depends almost exclusively on the Qur’an and traditional reports (hadith, plural: ahadith) of the sayings and customary practice (sunna) of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions (sahaba). Hanbalites reject reliance upon personal opinion (ra’y), although tolerate the use of analogy (qiyas) to varying degrees. In the realm of theology, they are generally hostile towards any kind of figurative interpretation (ta’wil) or speculative reasoning (‘aql) that departs from the literal sense of scripture and tradition. They are thus frequently at odds with more rationalist speculative theologians (e.g. the Mu‘tazilites and later, the modern Ash‘arites), as well as with the philosophers. In part because of this, the Hanbalites are often caricatured as intolerant fanatics and hide-bound anti-intellectual traditionalists, but their theological interventions could be subtle, resourceful and surprisingly moderate. For instance, Ibn Hanbal himself believed that God is as He describes Himself in the Qur’an, and that the ambiguous passages (which mention God’s hand, face, throne, etc.) must be taken bila kayf, i.e. without asking why or specifying their modality. Through this exegetical strategy (which the Ash‘arites appropriated) he sought to avoid falling into anthropomorphism (tashbih, lit. ‘making [God] similar [to created things]’) on the one hand and divesting (ta‘til) God of His attributes on the other, as the negative theologies of the Mu‘tazilites and philosophers seemed to do through their emphasis on divine transcendence (tanzih). He did maintain, however, that the divine names and attributes are eternal. One particular consequence of this was that the Qur’an (as the speech of God) must be eternal and uncreated, a doctrine which resulted in Ibn Hanbal’s persecution and imprisonment during the Mu‘tazilite inquisition under the ‘Abbasid caliphs al-Ma’mun and al-Mu‘tasim. On other theological fronts, he staked out a middle ground between the Jabrites and Qadarite-Mu‘tazilites on the problem of free will and predestination. On the question of what makes someone a Muslim, he characterized belief as acceptance by the heart accompanied by outward expression and action, and maintained that the sinner is still a believer, although subject to punishment (making faith something relative and dynamic, which can increase or decrease depending on one’s actions). Ibn Hanbal was a cautious and subtle jurist as well. He opposed any attempt to codify his juristic thought (thus insuring that the Qur’an and sunna themselves were never overshadowed) and insisted upon the indispensability of independent judgement, which the other Sunni madhhabs would soon set aside in favor of obedience (taqlid, lit. ‘imitation’). Perhaps the greatest thinker in the Hanbalite tradition was Ibn Taymiyya, whose penetrating criticisms of the philosophers (as well as the modern Ash‘arites, monistic Sufis, Shi‘ites, etc.) are deservedly famous. Hanbalism had a formative effect on later modern revivalist movements in Sunni Islam such as the Wahhabis and the Salafis.
   Further reading: Hallaq 1997, 2005; Hurvitz 2002; Schacht 1964/83

Islamic Philosophy. . 2007.

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