Pebbles thrown in the water: Rise of extremist views and lessons for our time

By Shaykh Hafiz Mahmut, slightly edited by the Team

بِسْمِ اللَّـهِ الرَّحْمَـٰنِ الرَّحِيم

In the year 212 A.H., Khalifah al-Ma’mun announced that the view of the Qur’an being Makhlooq (a created entity) was to be imposed as the I’tiqad (creed) of the state. He was affected in his Aqeedah by the intellectuals and scholars of the Mutazilite ideology. However, he was opposed by many Muslims and as a result he had to withdraw his statement.

In year 218 A.H., after 6 long years of silence, he tried to impose the same view again through despotism. He put pressure upon laymen and scholars to accept this view. Those who opposed him were sought after and arrested, so as to be taken into account by government officials and the Khalifah himself.

Many scholars and intellectuals were interrogated about whether the Qur’an was Makhlooq or not. Those who agreed with the formal state legislation of the Qur’an being Makhlooq were released and those who opposed this creed were incarcerated. Ahmad ibn Hanbal (RA) and three other scholars were also taken from their homes to the presence of the Khalifah for interrogation. However, the Khalifah passed away while this group of scholars was on their way to see him. Hence, Ahmad ibn Hanbal (RA) and the scholars were sent back to Baghdad.

Al-Mu’tasim became the new Khalifah after al-Ma’mun. He was also of the same view as al-Ma’mun in his Aqeedah. Hence, Ahmad ibn Hanbal (RA) was arrested and imprisoned. He was whipped to the point of unconsciousness, and was jailed for 28 months.

Khalifa al-Mu’tasim also passed away and left the rein to his heir al-Wathiq who was also of the same view as his father at the beginning. But he then repented from his beliefs and passed away. The next one in line was Khalifah al-Mutawakkil who was against imposing the view of the Qur’an being Makhlooq upon people and left people free in their views. Ahmad ibn Hanbal (RA) was also released from jail during this time.

While these events were unfolding, people started having immense respect for Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal (RA). They went to extremes in their admiration of him. They saw him as the leader of the Ahl us-Sunnah. When his name was mentioned in Baghdad, everyone was in awe.

Under his leadership, a group of people with new views emerged. Their slogan was to hold on to the rope of the Salaf us-Saliheen (lit. pious predecessors). However they also had some other absolute statements such as their view that anything which was not uttered by the Salaf is an innovation. As a result, the views and ideas of Imam Ahmad (RA), his students and the people around him were taken as the ultimate proof of Islam. People would accept anything that they said and reject anything they rejected. If they were to make a statement against any given scholar, people would take an immediate stance against that scholar without even investigating the matter further.

As we can see, the pressure started by al-Ma’mun returned with a reverse effect. The opposite view represented by the motto “hold on to the rope of Salaf us-Saliheen” applied great pressure to many great scholars of that era. Thus, many scholars, due to views differing with that of Imam Ahmad (RA) or his students in many religious matters were ostracized, labelled as innovators and seen as deviants in the eyes of the people.

It should be noted that this attack was not only against those who shared Mu’tazili views. Also attacked were other scholars who were interested in Kalaam (scholastic discursive theology) and those who uttered certain Kalaami statements that were unheard off previously. Scholars such as Ibn Kullab and Abu ‘Ali al-Karabisi (RA) were presenting solid proofs against M’utazili views, yet they were also opposed by this group of extreme Hanbalis.

As an example, Harith al-Muhasibi (RA) would mention some statements of wisdom related to the sciences of Tasawwuf (Islamic spirituality) which were not known through the Salaf. Hence, he was left in isolation. This is a very sad and upsetting story for Muslims. Khatib al-Baghdadi (RA) mentions that Ahmad ibn Hanbal (RA) cut off his relations with al-Muhasibi (RA) due to his views with respect to Kalaam and Tasawwuf. People who observed the behavior of Imam Ahmad (RA) also acted in the same way and took a stance against this great scholar.

Thus, some cut relations with al-Muhasibi (RA) due to peer pressure, and others did so due to some other reasons. People started hating him as a result. Thus, al-Muhasibi (RA) hid in an isolated house to run away from the hatred of people and passed away alone in that very same house. May Allah bless him. It is very saddening to know that there were only 4 people in his funeral prayer. It is also unfortunate that Ibn Kathir (RA) mentions this story as a lesson for those who are interested or occupied in the sciences of Kalaam and Tasawwuf.

As another example, Abu ‘Ali al-Karabisi (RA), who is one of the distinguished students of the Shafii’ school, was compared by the scholars of “Ahl al-Hadith” with his contemporary and one of the big guns of the Shafii’ school, Abu Thawr. The Ahl al-Hadith concluded that Al-Karabisi (RA) was interested in Kalaam and hence he was not as famous as Abu Thawr (RA). The blessings of Al-Karabisi’s (RA) knowledge were taken away from the people at large due to his interest in Kalaam. This sort of misinterpretations was unfortunately common in the past, and today what we see is no different.

Also, Abu Bakr ibn Khuzaima cut his relations with his students such as Abi ‘Ali ath-Thaqafi (RA) who were interested in learning Kalaam. He also put them into a very difficult position due to his powerful charisma in the society. This also shows that the tension which started in Baghdad also affected people in far-away lands such as Nisabur.

So firstly, the Mu’tazilah used political power to create pressure upon people. And then the victims of the previous Mu’tazilah-dominated era used the power of religion through the charisma of the Salaf us-Saalihin. The ‘victims of yesterday’ were the “Ahli al-Hadith” and some Fuqaha, whereas the ‘victims of today’ were figures such as Harith al-Muhasibi, Abdullah bin Kullab, Abu ‘Ali al-Karabisi (RA), due to their interest in Kalaam, Fiqh and Tasawwuf. The ‘victims of yesterday’ created more victims later on in a vicious cycle and applied huge pressure upon the Muslims.

Thus, the strategy of policing the view of people begun under al-Ma’mun changed hands later on and transferred from the pressure of the Mu’tazila to the despotism of the “Ahl al-Hadith” and the (extreme) Hanbalis. Hanbali pressure started after the events of the Mihna (tribulation) and continued through the 4th and 5th Hijri centuries.

On numerous occasions, people spilled onto the streets due to the issues of Tajseem, Tashbeeh (anthropomorphism and likening Allah to the creation), and Ta’weel (interpretations given to the primary Islamic texts), all of which are Kalaam-related discussions (i.e. academic scholastic discussions). Confusion, unrest and havoc were created amongst the people. Those subjects which are normally discussed in sober, academic scholarly circles were taken to the circles of laymen in the streets. Even two centuries after Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal (RA), scholars such as Imam al-Qushayri and Imam al-Juwayni (RA) were severely pressurized by certain groups.

Moreover, even 3 centuries after Imam Ahmad (RA), there were unrests in the streets of Baghdad. In the 6th Hijri century, those who were considered to be moderate Hanbali scholars such as Ibn al-Jawzi (RA) were upset by those extreme Hanbalis. It is of note that Ibn al-Jawzi wrote a critique called, ‘Daf’ Shubh At-Tashbeeh’ (دفع شبه التشبيه), against these people whose aim was to go against Mu’tazilah but which culminated in taking their views one step further, to the point of  defending Tashbeeh-related views (i.e. anthropomorphic views, and likening Allah to His creation). On top of that, in order to go against the Shias, they went to a stage where they even started defending Yazid. Please read this book if you can get hold of it.

The important lesson we can gain from this is that what is happening in the Muslim world right now is like a Deja vu of what occurred at that time. In today’s chaotic world, people are looking for action heroes to follow. One can easily be portrayed as a hero and the masses, regardless of their creed or sect, can be easily driven to follow that particular person as people have lost their identity, both intellectually and spiritually.

Also if we consider the opposite case, as we saw above, one can adopt an extreme form of views and create a hero for the opposition, and the opposition will follow that hero without even questioning. We are experiencing these examples in today’s world especially in the Muslim lands.

The conditions are very ripe for create extremists of every kind, whether directly or through reverse psychology. Those who are interested in extremism should take a lesson from these events. Even if you throw a small pebble into a source of water, the waves it creates may last for a long time.