The difference between the Salafi and Hanbali creed
Salafi creed is essentially Ibn Taymiyyah’s understanding of the creed of Imam Ahmad and the Salafus Salih, while the Hanbali creed is essentially the creed of Imam Ahmad. One can argue that Ibn Taymiyyah was a Hanbali and thus what he said is part of the Hanbali school, as with any school, all their scholars make up the school, not just the founder. Fair enough, Ibn Taymiyyah followed the Hanbali school in matters of creed but he still differed with Imam Ahmad on particular issues. (1)
Despite Imam Ahmad wanting to be conservative in matters of creed, when he said, “How can I say what was not said before?” Ibn Taymiyyah differed with him in this by saying and attributing things to the Salafus Saleh, they never said, like taking the literal meaning or apparent meaning (dhahir) of the ambiguous statements from the Quran and Sunnah. Ibn Taymiyyah said, “Those who followed the Salaf,…, such as A Khattabi, Abu Bakr Al Khatib and others have stated that the way of the Salaf is to take the verses and hadiths of the Attributes upon their literal or apparent meaning (dhahir) and to state at the same time that they neither know their nature, nor conceive of them on human patterns.” (Majmo al Fatawa 33:176) This is the same position that is taught by most if not all Salafi scholars including Ibn Uthaymeen, Bin Baz and the other leading Salafi scholars, that the verses and hadiths are to be taken literally.
Ibn Rajab Al Hanbali on the creed of Imam Ahmad and the Salafus Salih
Ibn Rajab al Hanbali said, “The correct position in all of this is the position of the Righteous Salaf in their leaving the verses and hadiths concerning the Attributes as they came without explanation, asking how or likening them to creation. There is nothing at all contravening this position that is authentically reported from them, especially Imam Ahmad. Neither is anything reported from them proving that they probed into their meanings or propounded analogies and similitudes for them. This, even though there some who lived close to the time of Ahmad who did do some of this, following the way of Maqqatil, but they are not to be followed in this. Those who should be followed are the Imam of Islam such as ibn al Mubarak, Malik, Thawri, Awza’I, Shafi, Ahmad, Ishaq, Abu ‘Ubaid and their likes.” (Fadhl ‘Ilm al-Salaf ‘ala ‘Ilm al-Khalaf )
It is interesting to note in this statement of Ibn Rajab explaining the creed of the Salaf and in particular the creed of Imam Ahmad, he does not mention that their position concerning the unclear verses (ayat) and hadiths (narrations of the Prophet –sallahualayhiwasalam) related to Allah’s Attributes, that they are to be taken upon the literal meaning (ala dhahiri), but rather they would simply narrate them as they received them, as in the words of the Salaf themselves, “Leave them as they are without asking ‘How?”
The Creed of Imam Ahmad
Imam Ahmad (d. 241 AH) said, “Allah is not to be described other than in the terms with which He has described Himself, or in which the Messenger of Allah – sallahu alayhi wa salam- has described Him. We do not exceed the Quran and hadtih.” (IbnTaymiyyah Hamawiyya – pg 271-272)(IbnTaymiyya-majmu fatawa – 5:26)
Imam Ahmad also said, “We believe and confirm the hadiths of the Attributes without how and without meaning (wa la kayf wa la ma’na.) (Narrated from Hanbal ibn Ishaq through al Khallal by Ibn Qudamah in Dhamm al Tawil.)
The Creed of Those Who came before Imam Ahmad
Imam Shafi (d. 204 AH) was asked about the Divine Attributes. He said, “It is forbidden for the minds to represent Allah. It is forbidden for the imagination to conceive limits for Him. It is forbidden for speculation to presume anything about Him. It is forbidden for souls to think about His Essence. It is forbidden for consciences to deepen reflection about Him. It is forbidden for thoughts to grasp other than what He described Himself with, as conveyed by His Prophet –sallahualayhiwasalam. (Narrated from al Rabi ibnSulayman by IbnQudamah in Dhamm a Tawil g 20-21) Nothing about the literal meaning or apparent meaning…
Imam Shafi also said, “I believe in what comes from Allah in the meaning meant by the Messenger of Allah, sallahu alayhi wa salam.” (Ibn Qudamah in Lam’at al Itiqad) Again nothing about taking them upon their literal meaning or apparent meaning.
Al-Walid ibn Muslim (d. 194H) said, “I asked Malik, al-Awza’i, Laytb ibn Sa’d and Sufyan al-Thawri, may Allah have mercy upon them, concerning the reports related about the Attributes, so they all said, ‘Leave them as they are without asking ‘How?” (Reported by al-Aajurri in Ash-Sha’ri’ah, p. 314, al-Bayhaqi in Al-Asma was-Sifat, p. 453 and also al-I’tiqad, p. 118 and the chain of narration is hasan.) Again nothing about taking them upon their literal meaning. .
Al-Awza’i (d.157H) said, “I asked az-Zuhri and Makhul about the ayat pertaining to the Sifat (Attributes of Allah), so they said, ‘Leave them as they are.” (Reported by al-Laalikaa’ee in SharhUsulul-I’tiqad 3/430 and IbnQudamah al-Maqdisi in Dhammut-Ta‘wil, p. 18 and the chain of narration is hasan.) Again nothing about taking them upon their literal meaning or apparent meaning.
There seems to be a pattern….
In Daf Shubah al Tashbih (Rebuttal of the Insinuations of Anthropomorphism) (2) by Ibn Jawzi al Hanbali, he pleaded with his Hanbali brothers who insisted that the ambiguous verses and hadith are to be taken literally when he said, “Companions! Brothers! You are the People who adhere to the texts and follow them. This was the example of your Imam, the greatest Imam, Ahmad ibn Hanbal, May Allah Exalthed be He, have mercy on him, who under pain of torture, proclaimed, ‘How can I say what was not been said before?’ So, take care not to introduce into his madhab what does not belong in it.”
And Allah knows best.
(1) Despite Imam Ahmad staunch condemnation of speculative theology (Ilm al Kalam), Ibn Taymiyyah was a fervent Mutakallim, or speculative theologian, as one can discover from reading his Majmoo al Fatawa. Some defend him saying, he only engaged in study and language of the speculative theologians in order to refute them, yet this is the exact same argument the Shafis, Hanafis, Malikis use to defend the Asharis and the Maturidis, in that they used Ilm Kalam to refute the Mutazila. Yet, Imam Ahmad said, “Do not sit with the people of kalam, even if they defend the Sunna.” And Allah knows best.
(2) Daf Shubah al Tashbih (Rebuttal of the Insinuations of Anthropomorphism) by Ibn Jawzi has been translated into english with the title “The Attributes of God” by Shaykh Abdullah bin Hamid Ali.