imaam ahmad was the foremost among the imaams in collecting the sunnah and sticking to it, so much so that he even "disliked that a book consisting of deductions and opinions be written."43 because of this he said:
1. "do not follow my opinion; neither follow the opinion of maalik, nor shaafi'i, nor awzaa'i, nor thawri, but take from where they took."44
in one narration: "do not copy your deen from anyone of these, but whatever comes from the prophet (pbuh) and his companions, take it; next are their successors, where a man has a choice."
once he said: "following45 means that a man follows what comes from the prophet (pbuh) and his companions; after the successors, he has a choice."46
2. "the opinion of awzaa'i, the opinion of maalik, the opinion of abu haneefah: all of it is opinion, and it is all equal in my eyes. however, the proof is in the narrations (from the prophet (pbuh) and his companions)."47
3. "whoever rejects a statement of the messenger of allaah (pbuh) is on the brink of destruction."48
these are the clear, lucid sayings of the imaams (allaah exalted be pleased with them) about sticking to the hadeeth and forbidding the following of their opinion without clearly- visible evidence, such that mere opinion and interpretation is not acceptable.
hence, whoever adhered to whatever of the sunnah that was proved authentic, even if it opposed some of the imaams' sayings, he would not be conflicting with their madhhab, nor straying from their path; rather, such a person would be following all of them and would be grasping the most trustworthy hand-hold, which never breaks. however, this would not be the case with the one who abandoned any of the authentic sunnah simply because it contradicted their views; nay, such a person would be being disobedient to them and opposing their above mentioned sayings, while allaah says:
"but no, by your lord, they can have no (real) faith, until they make you judge in all disputes between them, and find in their souls no resistance against your decisions, but accept them with the fullest conviction."49.
he also says:
"then let those beware who withstand the messenger's order, lest some trial befall them or a grievous penalty be inflicted on them."50
haafiz ibn rajab al-hanbali (may allah bless his soul) says:
"therefore it is obligatory on anyone who hears of a command of the messenger of allaah (pbuh) or knows it, to explain it to the ummah, advise them sincerely, and order them to follow his command, even if it contradicts the opinion of someone great. this is because the authority of the messenger of allaah (pbuh) has the most right to be respected and followed, over and above the opinion of anyone great who has unknowingly contradicted the messenger's command in any matter. this is why the companions and those after would refute anyone who contradicted the authentic sunnah, sometimes being very stern in their refutation51, not out of hatred for that person, for they loved and respected him, but because the messenger of allaah was more beloved to them, and his command was superior to the command of any other created being. hence, when the order of the messenger and that of someone else conflicted, the order of the messenger would be more fitting to be enforced and followed. none of this would stop them respecting the person they had opposed because they knew that he would be forgiven52; in fact, the latter would not mind his instruction being opposed when the command of the messenger of allaah (pbuh) was clearly shown to be opposite."53
indeed, how could they mind that, when they had ordered their followers to do so, as we have seen, and had enjoined on them to abandon any of their views which contradicted the sunnah. in fact, imaam shaafi'i (may allah bless his soul) told his companions to attribute the authentic sunnah to him also, even if he had not adopted it or had adopted something contradictory to it. hence, when the analyst ibn daqeeq al-'eid (may allah bless his soul) collected together, in a bulky volume, the issues in which one or more of the four imaams' madhhabs had contradicted the authentic hadeeth, he wrote at the beginning of it, "it is prohibited to attribute these answers to the mujtahid imaams, and obligatory on the jurists who follow their opinions to know of these so that they do not quote them regarding these and thus lie against them."54
ibn al-jawzi in al-manaaqib (p. 192)
fulaani (p. 113) & ibn al-qayyim in i'laam (2/302).
abu daawood in masaa'il of imaam ahmad (pp. 276-7)
ibn 'abdul barr in jaami' bayaan al-'ilm (2/149).
ibn al-jawzi (p. 182).
even against their fathers and learned men, as tahaawi in sharh ma'aani al-aathaar (1/372) & abu ya'laa in his musnad (3/1317) have related, with an isnaad of trustworthy men, from saalim ibn 'abdullaah ibn 'umar, who said:
"i was sitting with ibn 'umar (radi allaahu 'anhu) in the mosque once, when a man from the people of syria came to him and asked him about continuing the 'umrah onto the hajj (known as hajj tamattu'). ibn 'umar replied, 'it is a good and beautiful thing.' the man said, 'but your father (i.e. 'umar ibn al-khattaab) used to forbid it!' so he said, 'woe to you! if my father used to forbid something which the messenger of allaah (sallallaahu 'alaihi wa sallam) practised and commanded, would you accept my father's view, or the order of the messenger of allaah (sallallaahu 'alaihi wa sallam) ?' he replied, 'the order of the messenger of allaah (sallallaahu 'alaihi wa sallam).' he said, 'so go away from me.' ahmad (no. 5700) related similarly, as did tirmidhi (2/82) and declared it saheeh.
also, ibn 'asaakir (7/51/1) related from ibn abi dhi'b, who said:
"sa'd ibn ibraaheem (i.e. the son of 'abdur rahmaan ibn 'awf) passed judgment on a man on the basis of the opinion of rabee'ah ibn abu 'abdur rahmaan, so i informed him of the saying of the messenger of allaah (sallallaahu 'alaihi wa sallam) which was contradictory to the judgment. sa'd said to rabee'ah, 'we have ibn abi dhi'b, whom i regard to be reliable, narrating from the prophet (sallallaahu 'alaihi wa sallam) contrary to what i ruled.' rabee'ah said to him, 'you have made your effort, and your judgment has been passed.' sa'd said, 'most amazing! i enforce the decree of sa'd, and not the decree of the messenger of allaah (sallallaahu 'alaihi wa sallam)! no, i shall withdraw the decree of sa'd, son of the mother of sa'd, and enforce the decree of the messenger of allaah (sallallaahu 'alaihi wa sallam).' so sa'd called for the written decree, tore it up and gave a new verdict."
in fact, he would be rewarded, because of the prophet's saying (sallallaahu 'alaihi wa sallam): "when a judge passes judgment, if he makes his effort (ijtihaad) and rules correctly, he will have two rewards; if he makes his effort (ijtihaad) and rules wrongly, he will have one reward." (related by bukhaari, muslim & others.)
quoted in the notes on eeqaaz al-himam (p. 93)
fulaani (p. 99)