In the introduction to his translation of Ibn al-Jawzi’s Virtues of the Imam Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, Michael Cooperson quotes Christopher Melchert, who explains why he wrote a new biography of Ibn Hanbal rather than translating an old one:
“The first disadvantage of translating a medieval biography is that it inevitably presents a medieval point of view. A full-time scholar has had the chance to develop a taste for such literature, but most readers would find it grotesque.”
So for a while I felt a bit — grotesque, maybe — since I’ve found the Virtues of the Imam Ahmad Ibn Hanbal one of the most enjoyable, and certainly the most accessible, among the Library of Arabic Literature texts I’ve read. Certainly, Leg Over Leg has been the most head-turning, Ali’s proverbs in A Treasury of Virtues are appealingly universal, and The Epistle on Legal Theory was an interesting intellectual exercise, but the Virtues of the Imam Ahmad Ibn Hanbal is a compelling character portrait of an exceptionally interesting man. Moreover, it’s written in (and translated into) a simple, straightforward vernacular that is at least as easy to understand as most contemporary scholarship. Far from grotesque, it feels exceptionally familiar.
It’s true that Ibn al-Jawzi’s biographical portrait also includes a great deal of transmission information (“We were informed by so-and-so, who quotes such-and-such, who heard from this-and-that, who heard that thus-and-such…”) in a smaller font. There’s also an entire chapter filled with names of “The Major Men of Learning Whom He Met and on Whose Authority He Recited Hadith,” in alphabetical order.
But so, yes, you skip these. Cooperson, in his introduction, even lists the chapters non-specialists can skim.
Those things aside, the medieval lens on Ibn Hanbal — far from being grotesque — is part of the portrait’s charm. And this is indeed a portrait, not hagiography. While Ibn al-Jawzi purports to tell us about Ahmad ibn Hanbal’s “virtues,” there is also a good deal about his strained relations with his family, his self-doubt, his sweat-stained collar. A report that came from Al-Marrudhi (35.6) says that, “I went into the entryway and found Ahmad sitting on the dirt floor. The dye in his hair had run, and I could see the white roots of his hair. He was wearing a small, dirty breechclout of white cotton and a coase shirt with a smudge on the shoulder and sweat stains on the collar.”
Al-Marrudhi continues that he asked Ibn Hanbal questions about the lawfulness of earning a living. “No sooner had I asked the question than I saw his face fall and assume such a sorrowful expression of self-contempt that it pained me to look at him. As I left, I said to someone who was with me, ‘Some days he seems so dissatisfied with himself.'”
The portrait emerges of a strict, eternally dissatisfied, austere family man and landlord who is often generous and well-regarded but eternally disappointed in himself and his children, a man who is always in search of more hadith reports, in the hope that these will answer his questions. He seems to have had little sympathy for women and to have been a hard patriarch indeed.
Also from al-Marrudhi, one of the book’s best informants: “I once heard Ahmad say: “Nothing has as much merit as being poor. Do you know that when your wife asks you for something and you can’t afford it, what a reward you’ve earned?”
In his introduction, Cooperson says that the thing he most wished is that he could have “reproduced the voices” of the various informants. In the book, Ibn Hanbal’s life is given as a series of eyewitness reports. “If the words on the page really are transcriptions of speech, each report should represent a different voice,” Cooperson writes. “In practice, though, there does not seem to be much variation in register, possibly because reports originally narrated in informal Arabic, and perhaps even other languages, have been put into literary Arabic of a more or less uniform kind by one or another of the transmitters.” The informants, Cooperson notes, include “everyone from caliphs, judges, and jailors to doctors, grocers, and bandits. Unusually, if all too briefly, we also hear the voices of women (e.g. 61.7) and children (65.9). Here again, though, all of these people seem to be speaking the same sort of Arabic, making it difficult to give them distinctive voices in English.”
Still, even without distinctive registers, many of the informants have a particular style, and when a detail is repeated by a number of informants — with a slightly different twist each time — it increases the feeling that we are seeing this very important, distinctive man from different angles.
The overall portrait may not be particularly flattering — at least not from a contemporary view — but it makes for fascinating reading. This is doubly the case because it is written in the report-style that shaped so much of Ibn Hanbal’s life.