Al-Tabari’s reply is neither new nor unique of its kind. Several of those who wrote about the differences among jurists did not mention Ahmad ibn Hanbal. Among them: Al-Tahawi, al-Dabbousi, al-Nasafi, `Ala’ al-Din al-Samarqandi, al-Firahi al-Hanafi (one of the scholars of the seventh century) in his book Dhat al-`Uqdayn, and others of the Hanafis who wrote on the subject, all omitted him. Ibn al-Fardi said in his chronicle of the scholars of al-Andalus, upon mentioning Abu Muhammad `Abd Allah ibn Muhammad al-Asili al-Maliki, that the latter wrote a book concerning the differences of Malik, al-Shafi`i, and Abu Hanifa called al-Dala’il fi Ummahat al-Masa’il (“The Proofs For The Paramount Questions”). He states:

The author of Kashf al-Zunun said that Muhammad ibn `Abd al-Rahman al-Samarqandi al-Sakhawi5 who died in Mardin in 721 in `Umdat al-Talib li Ma`rifa al-Madhahib (“The Reliance of the Student of the Knowledge of the Schools”) mentioned the differences among jurists and said in the end: `I placed in my book the views of al-Nu`man [Abu Hanifa], Ya`qub [Abu Yusuf], Muhammad [ibn al-Hasan al-Shaybani] and their excellent companions, also Shafi`i, Malik, and all in which they differed with the Shi`as. May Allah give them life and every reward.’ Therefore the position of Ahmad in his view is lesser than the Three, and similar to that of Dawud al-Zahiri and the Shi`a.6

                        Nor did al-Ghazzali, who also wrote about ikhtilaf, mention Ahmad in his Wajiz; nor did Abu al-Barakat al-Nasafi in his al-Wafi. As for the authors of books of history and geography, Ibn Qutayba did not mention Ahmad in Kitab al-Ma`arif; al-Maqdisi does mention him in Ahsan al-Taqasim fi Ashab al-Hadith, but he does not include him among the Ashab al-Fiqh, while he includes Dawud al-Zahiri. Ibn `Abd al-Barr wrote al-Intiqa’ fi Fada’il al-Thalatha al-Fuqaha’ (“The Hand-Picked Excellent Merits of the Three Great Jurisprudent Imams: Malik, Shafi`i, and Abu Hanifa”). The anonymous `Umda al-`Arifin (“Reliance of the Knowers”) mentions as the fourth of the Four Imams not Ahmad, but Sufyan al-Thawri. Al-Ghazzali said: “He and Ahmad were of the most famous Imams for their strong fear of Allah, and for the small number of their followers. As for now, the School of Sufyan is abandoned, and the consensus of the Muslims is around the four known schools.” Al-Khatib al-Baghdadi in his biographies of the scholars of Baghdad, similarly reserves the highest level of jurisprudence for al-Shafi`i, while he names Ahmad “the master of hadith scholars” (sayyid al-muhaddithin).

Was al-Tabari a Shafi`i? Abu Muhammad al-Farghani – one of the most important narrators of the books of al-Tabari – is reported in the books of history as saying: “Harun ibn `Abd al-`Aziz related to me: Abu Ja`far al-Tabari said to me: `I have given rulings according to the fiqh of al-Shafi`i for ten years in Baghdad, and Ibn Bashshar al-Ahwal (the teacher of Ibn Surayj) took it from me.’ When al-Tabari’s learning increased, his striving and research led him to produce all that he produced from among the categories of knowledge in his books, and he left nothing except he gave Muslims advice about it.” The authors of the books of biographical layers (Tabaqat) are unanimous that he is a mujtahid mutlaq (capable of independent legal reasoning), but they differ on the question whether he is also at the same time a follower of the Shafi`i school like Abu Thawr, who is considered both a mujtahid mutlaq and a follower of al-Shafi`i.7 Al-Asnawi and al-Sharqawi did not mention him in their biographies of the Shafi`is, while [Abu Ishaq] al-Shirazi says in the introduction to his “Biographical-Layers [of the Jurists]” that he is considered outside the Shafi`is. Ahmad Ibn Qasim al-`Abbadi (d. ~1585CE) says “he is among our scholars” in the Tabaqat al-Shafi`iyyin. Rafi`i in al-Muharrar says: “Due to his differences, Ibn Jarir is no longer considered of those in our madhhab, although he is counted among the layers of the companions of al-Shafi`i.” Nawawi mentions this in Tahdhib al-Asma’ wa al-Lughat. This important distinction is often overlooked by the chroniclers who are interested in enlarging the numbers of their imam’s followers and including prestigious names among them, such as Ibn Abi Ya`la’s inclusion of Abu `Ubayd Ibn Sallam in Tabaqat al-Hanabila, and Ibn al-Subki’s inclusion of al-Bukhari in Tabaqat al-Shafi`iyya.

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