In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ḥanbalīs

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Biography of Ahmad Ibn Hanbal
  • Ahmad Ibn Hanbal and the Mihna
  • Sufism

Islamic Studies Ḥanbalīs
Livnat Holtzman
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 March 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0210


Hanbalis (the plural form in Arabic is Hanabila) are the adherents of the fourth Sunni school of law that bases its legal and theological thought on the teachings of Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. AH 241/855 CE), a devout traditionist who lived in ʿAbbasid Baghdad, and clashed with the authorities who espoused the rationalistic dogma. Ibn Hanbal and his followers emerged as the proponents of strict traditionalism and scripturalism, and they spread their messages in broad-based classes dedicated to Hadith transmission. Their classes attracted many laymen, and gradually Hanbali adherents established a power base in Baghdad. A few decades after the clash between Ibn Hanbal and the state authorities (in the event called the mihna), the Hanbalis emerged as a powerful political group with close ties with the ʿAbbasid state. Their connection with the state authorities allowed the Hanbali activists to rule the Baghdadian street, and they succeeded in inciting the mob to attack targets such as taverns and brothels according to the Hanbali agenda. Theology also played a prominent role in Hanbali activism: The clashes between the rationalistic Ashʿaris and the traditionalistic Hanbalis were part of the political climate in 11th-century Baghdad. Political activities aside, Hanbali scholars, who did not necessarily participate in these clashes, produced refined theological writings. Hanbalis were often depicted in the historical sources of the 9th to the 14th centuries as hostile to rationalistic or speculative theology (kalam)—mainly represented by the Muʿtazilis—and to forms of extreme Sufism. However, Hanbali authors wrote sophisticated works on speculative theology and Sufism, thus creating a new form of traditionalistic-rationalistic theology. The trend of higher Hanbali thought continued in the second most important center of Hanbalism, Mamluk Damascus (see the Oxford Bibliographies article “Ibn Taymiyya” by Jon Hoover). Hanbali activism and Hanbali theology took modern form with the appearance of Wahhabism. This modern form is not discussed here. For this, see the Oxford Bibliographies Online articles “Salafism” by Jonathan A. C. Brown and “Arab-Salafism” by David Commins. As a school of law, Hanbalism in its later phase (the 13th century onward) was a mixture of strict adherence to the textual sources of the law (namely, the Qur’an and the Sunna) and flexibility in applying independent juristic reasoning (ijtihad) in areas that the scriptures did not cover. This trend, and in particular the emphasis laid on the rejection of taqlid (imitating the opinions of prominent scholars), ripened in the writings of Ibn Taymiyya (d. AH 728/1328 CE). This entry covers the Hanbali school of law and theology only between the 9th and 14th centuries. In this entry, “traditionist” and its plural form denote Hadith transmitters (muhaddith pl. muhaddithun), while “traditionalist” and its plural form are reserved for scholars whose main body of theological teachings relied on Hadith, but who were not necessarily Hadith transmitters. The adjective “traditionalistic” denotes teachings, argumentations, trends, and works that voice the worldview of the traditionalists.

General Overviews

Studies on Hanbalism have grown greatly since the 1980s: several studies deal with the emergence of Hanbalism and its spread throughout the Islamic world, and quite a number of studies have appeared on Hanbali law, theology, and individual thinkers. Still, a systematically unified treatment of this school remained a desideratum. An introductory survey to the religion of Islam, Waines 1995, in its accurate observations and succinct prose, is a good gateway to Hanbalism. Two useful introductions are Swartz 2003 and Makdisi 1987. Hanbalism either has been neglected or has suffered from misconception by the European polymaths of Western academia. This is why Makdisi 1981, an important survey of Hanbali thought, features an intense polemical tone against the observations of Goldziher 1925. Laoust 1971 is a reasonable survey of Hanbalism from the 9th until the 20th centuries. Cook 2000 provides the most comprehensive survey written to date and provides a distinct demarcation of the geographical spread of Hanbalism. Ibn Badran 1981 offers a broad overview written in stylish archaic Arabic. The best overview in Arabic to date is Abu Zayd 1997.

  • Abu Zayd, Bakr. Al-Madkhal al-Mufaṣṣal ilā Fiqh al-Imām Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal wa-Takhrījāt al-Aṣḥāb. Riyadh, Saudi Arabia: Dar al-ʿAsima, 1997.

    This work provides a broad overview of the development of the Hanbali school (pp. 127–147).

  • Cook, Michael. Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong in Islamic Thought. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    This monograph discusses the Islamic scholastic literature on the duty of al-amr bi’l-maʿruf wa’l-nahy ʿan al-munkar, and the spread of this duty throughout the Islamic world. Chapters 5–8 present a history of Hanbalism based on a close reading in various primary sources, mainly biographical dictionaries and chronicles.

  • Goldziher, Ignaz. Vorlesungen über den Islam. 2d ed. Heidelberg, Germany: C. Winter, 1925.

    In this work, originally published in 1910, Goldziher made observations that still capture the Hanbali literal reading of the scriptures. Also published in Ignaz Goldziher, Introduction to Islamic Theology and Law, translated by Andras and Ruth Hamori, with an introduction and additional notes by Bernard Lewis (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981).

  • Ibn Badran, ʿAbd al-Qadir al-Dimashqi. Al-Madkhal ilā Madhhab al-Imām Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal. Beirut, Lebanon: Muʼassasat al-Risala, 1981.

    This account of the theological and legal doctrines of Ahmad ibn Hanbal and his successors is quite useful. Because the author, a Damascene Hanbali judge who died in 1927, was an enthusiastic advocate of Hanbalism, this source should be read critically, while taking notice of its polemical tone. Part 7 contains a useful survey of Hanbali literature (pp. 423–448).

  • Laoust, Henri. “Ḥanābila.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam. 2d ed. Vol. 3. Edited by P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C. E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, and W. P. Heinrichs, 158–162. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1971.

    This entry provides a historical survey on the formation, growth, and spread of the Hanbali school, which summarizes Laoust 1959 (cited under the Hanbalis of Baghdad) and Laoust 1960 (cited under the Hanbalis of Damascus).

  • Makdisi, George. “Hanbalite Islam.” In Studies on Islam. Edited and translated by Merlin L. Swartz, 216–274. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.

    In Sections 1 and 4, this important article refutes Goldziher’s views on Hanbalism based on several case studies. In addition, the article enumerates milestones in the development of the Hanbali theological thought.

  • Makdisi, George. “Ḥanābilah.” In The Encyclopedia of Religion. Vol. 6. Edited by Mircea Eliade, 178–188. London: Macmillan, 1987.

    The section “Misconceptions concerning the Ḥanābilah” presents Makdisi’s groundbreaking views on Hanbalism in a nutshell.

  • Swartz, Merlin. “Hanbalite Maḏhab.” In Encyclopaedia Iranica. Vol. 11, fasc. 6. Edited by Ehsan Yarshater, 653–655. New York: Encyclopaedia Iranica Foundation, 2003.

    This entry mainly summarizes the work of Henri Laoust. Encyclopaedia Iranica is an open access resource.

  • Waines, David. An Introduction to Islam. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

    This general survey contains a concise sketch of the formation of the Hanbali school (pp. 70–79) and its theological doctrines (pp. 109–111).

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.