Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal and the formation of Islamic orthodoxy

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


This dissertation examines the life of Ahmad ibn Hanbal and his contribution to the formation of Islamic orthodoxy. It proposes to study Ibn Hanbal's thought by tracing the manner that his ideas were manifested in his personal behavior and political activities. Its three parts deal with Ibn Hanbal's private life, influence on the formation of the Hanbali school and attitudes towards theology. My main objective in the study of Ibn Hanbal's private life is to uncover his code of behavior. Based on descriptions of his habits as well as his attitude towards financial support, I conclude that Ibn Hanbal was a practitioner of mild asceticism. He identified with a world denying ideology but did not carry it out as fully as contemporary sufis. In his ambivalence, he was the harbinger of what was one of the most popular ethical postures in Islam, a respectful distance from sufism. The discussion of the formation of the Hanbali school is based on an investigation of its membership and distinctive ideological characteristics. The wealth of information about Ibn Hanbal's relationships with his pupils enables us to catch a glimpse of the bonds that united the Hanbalis. It also points to the enormous weight that this milieu placed on the ascetic way of life. Another ideological aspect that helps us to understand why Ibn Hanbal's disciples set up a separate school of law, was Ibn Hanbal's legal thought. This can be gleaned from his numerous legal correspondences. Ibn Hanbal's attitude toward theology was exposed in his interrogation during the Inquisition (mihna). This event enables us to observe how views of theology prompted one of the major crises of Islamic religiosity. This study reinterprets the causes of this crisis and sees them in terms of a struggle over the nature of Islamic religiosity. It also points to the repercussions of the Inquisition, in which the Traditionist milieu was divided into two legal schools, Shafi'is and Hanbalis.
Date of Award1994
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Princeton University
SupervisorMichael Cook (Supervisor)


  • Ahmad Ibn Hanbal
  • Islam

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