Hagiography and Hanbalism – By Tasi Perkins

Tasi Perkins on Ibn al-Jawzi’s Virtues of the Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal

Ibn al-Jawzi, Virtues of the Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal, ed. and trans. Michael Cooperson, 2 vols., New York University Press, 2013, 2015, 592pp., 544pp., $40 ea.
Ibn al-Jawzi, Virtues of the Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal, ed. and trans. Michael Cooperson, 2 vols., New York University Press, 2013, 2015, 592pp., 544pp., $40 ea.

“All day long I hope for death. I’m afraid of being tempted by the things of this world. Yesterday I was thinking that it’s been two trials. Before, they tested my religion, and this time they’re trying me with the things of this world” (73:39). So laments Ahmad ibn Hanbal (780-855), according to the biography compiled by one of his most influential devotees, Abu al-Faraj ibn al-Jawzi (1116-1200). This dual temptation, both to sacrifice one’s principles in order to save one’s life and to sacrifice one’s piety in order to attain worldly comfort, characterizes Ibn Hanbal’s struggle as Ibn al-Jawzi sees it. A man of virtue and dedication, the Ibn Hanbal presented by Ibn al-Jawzi is remarkably human in Michael Cooperson’s recent two-volume translation for the Library of Arabic Literature (LAL) through New York University Press. Ibn Hanbal is often re-imagined as stoic, static, and stern by those who associate contemporary Hanbalism with both Islamic fundamentalism and the eponymous Ibn Hanbal: heirs to the Hanbalite tradition have ranged from the medieval polemicist Ibn Taymiyya to Ibn al-Wahhab, chief influences on many masterminds behind al-Qaʿeda, ISIS (and in some cases, even the Taliban and Boko Haram). Hanbalism is the official legal system, often considered strict, of contemporary Saudi Arabia. In contrast, Ibn Hanbal comes across in Cooperson’s translation as a dynamic, meek, and above all God-fearing sheikh who was as resistant to acquiring authority as he was to those who already had it. Cooperson’s rendition of Ibn al-Jawzi’s biography raises two related questions about biography. First, can the stories of historical figures enrich scholarship outside the narrow disciplinary fields to which such stories are typically confined? Second, can third-person biographies ever be more than quasi-hagiographies constituted by layers of interpretation and eisegesis?

The aged Ahmad ibn Hanbal was the folk hero of the Islamic Inquisition (mihna), the bloody fifteen-year (833-48) tribunal in which “rationalists” who held that the Qurʾan was a divine creation systematically tried to quash their “traditionist” detractors who believed it to be coeternal with God. Ibn Hanbal’s story—as originally narrated by his sons and other early followers, redacted by Ibn al-Jawzi, translated by Cooperson, and edited for the LAL—is as compelling for students of either Ibn Hanbal or Ibn al-Jawzi as it is useful for thinkers beyond those narrow fields. These two volumes allow non-specialists to contemplate Ibn Hanbal’s humanity, though it remains to be seen how effective the LAL is at transcending the membrane of discipline and offering something of academic value to scholars on the periphery of Islamic studies and beyond. At the heart of this lingering question is the larger issue of third-person biography itself.

Cooperson’s translation of Ibn al-Jawzi’s Virtues of the Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal gives readers a unique vantage point into the life and piety of the namesake of the Hanbali school of Sunni law. While English-language monographs tend to focus heavily on Ibn Hanbal’s obstinacy during the mihna, Ibn al-Jawzi devotes only 6% of his word count to the Imam’s experiences in these years. Rather, Ibn al-Jawzi weaves this dimension of Ibn Hanbal’s biography into a larger character sketch, revealing someone who was ascetic, solitary, generous, and a person of ultimate integrity. He comes across as simultaneously humble and human, stern and smiling, beyond reproach and within grasp. The same man who refused to eat hot food because, “You can enjoy a cooked meal…only if you’re sure of being saved” (73:39) also told a pair of servants sent to purchase a slave-concubine for him with the instruction, “Make sure she’s got some meat on her” (63:2). Ibn al-Jawzi, drawing on earlier reports, reconstructs the life and morality of his hero as a complex, earnest, and playful man; Cooperson’s dynamic and accessible translation brings this last quality to the surface to an extent that would surprise many modern readers with preconceptions about Hanbalism.

Ibn Hanbal’s generosity at times even trumps his convictions. For example, the Shiʿites—who dismissed Ibn Hanbal as a “mere” hadith scholar in Ibn al-Jawzi’s Baghdad—are shown a degree of leniency which Hanbalites would not later extend. In addition to defending (20:36f.) the Caliphate of ʿAli (who Shiʿites revere as their first Imam), Ibn Hanbal forgives a deceitful Shiʿite who had sought to frame him: “He might have boys who would mourn if he were killed” (73.15). Through 100 chapters (of which Cooperson generously invites the lay reader to skip the most tedious nine), Ibn al-Jawzi carefully presents his Imam through subtle detail and colorful description as a human trying to do his best to place devotion over prestige.

In his introduction, Cooperson addresses the vulnerabilities of offering a translation rather than a monograph. These vulnerabilities are anticipated in the introduction to Christopher Melchert’s 2006 Ahmad ibn Hanbal, to which Cooperson consistently acknowledges debt. The most pressing of these, as related to Cooperson’s project, is accessibility. Melchert notes that Ibn al-Jawzi’s biography includes data that varies from insignificant to boring in the eyes of a non-specialist. Nimrod Hurvitz, in his 2002 The Formation of Hanbalism: Piety into Power, is similarly skeptical of “biography” as a genre. Can we know anything of the subject of a given biography or are we too overwhelmed by the voice and convictions or the biographer herself? Both scholars challenge biography as a useful category.

First, for whom is biography useful? The LAL aims to make great works of Arabic (read: Arab-Islamic) literature accessible to and helpful for non-specialists. Despite the specialist audience for whom the parallel Arabic-English print benefits, it hopes to contribute to the work of scholars beyond the pale of Arabic and Islamic studies. There are points at which Cooperson’s translation represents a triumph in this regard, but others at which the project retreats into insularity. It is hard for a non-specialist to understand the nuances of (Ibn al-Jawzi’s version of early biographers’ versions of) Ibn Hanbal’s struggles and arguments (such the abovementioned complex relationship with Shiʿism and the theo-political issues underlying the mihna), and this manuscript does little to navigate its readers through such subtleties.

Cooperson’s endnotes do much to mitigate this difficulty: they anticipate background questions which readers of all levels of specialty might have, and immensely enhance the volumes’ accessibility. Unfortunately, the interlinear Arabic-English formatting makes it impractical for the LAL to include these aides as footnotes. As such, the tediousness of flipping back and forth between the main text and the endnotes section (especially in a hardcover book) may either slow the pace of reading or reduce the frequency with which the reader is inclined to consult and benefit from Cooperson’s helpful commentary. If the LAL is interested in non-specialists, might the accessibility of Cooperson’s notes be a higher priority than the precisely parallel Arabic text?

Second, Hurvitz asks, “Can we treat the evidence about Ibn Hanbal as reliable historical data from which we can reconstruct his life, or are these reports merely the result of textual manipulations, which reveal the ideological agenda of their writers?” (5f.). Ultimately, he takes a both/and approach to the tension, but with a translation rather than a monograph this question is re-opened. How much are we learning about Ibn Hanbal and his contemporaries and how much about Ibn al-Jawzi (or Cooperson or NYU press for that matter)? The largest question from the lay vantage point is one of perspective. Cooperson writes, “What I most wish I could have reproduced is the voices” (xvii). He refers here to distinguishing between the characters in Ibn al-Jawzi’s narrative. Yet oddly there is no mention in the introduction or endnotes of Ibn al-Jawzi’s own voice, or the voices of those upon whose narrations he depends.

Presumably Ibn al-Jawzi did have a dog in the fight for the authority to narrate Ibn Hanbal’s life. He lived in a contentious age in the development of Hanbali thought. The question of his day was whether anthropomorphizing God was a greater error than offering allegorical interpretations of the Qurʾan, and unlike many of his contemporaries Ibn al-Jawzi erred on the side of avoiding anthropomorphisms. One might expect this perspective to play itself out in the subtleties of this biography, but neither Cooperson nor the text itself makes this explicit. A word or two in the introduction about Ibn al-Jawzi’s stake in the Hanbalite claim would help non-specialists to understand the finer points of his reading of his school’s founder. Ibn al-Jawzi does insert his comments frequently, but Cooperson is often silent about the direction in which the biographer is thereby pulling the life and character of Ibn Hanbal. Nevertheless, Cooperson’s endnotes make Ibn al-Jawzi’s Ibn Hanbal accessible and ultimately human to non-specialists who might browse this expensive-yet-readable set.

Perhaps this translation’s ultimate contribution to the wider world of scholarship is its exposure of the murky line between biography and hagiography. Modern secular biographies are as subjective as Ibn al-Jawzi’s. The author always has a stake in the characterization of the subject. The facts that Ibn al-Jawzi recuses himself from making anthropomorphism the center of his retelling and that Cooperson translates the work in its entirety mean that we have close access to Ahmad ibn Hanbal through these volumes. At the same time, enough layers of commentary are (sub-)consciously affixed to the language, presentation, and content thereof as to raise one final question. How might redactors, translators, and compilers apply ibn Hanbal’s avoidance of the skepticism of subjective interpretation (manifest in the temptation to selective presentations of primary sources) and learn from his piety-minded fear of imposing one’s druthers on a text?