Imaam Ahmad (may Allaah shower him with mercy) is without a doubt one of the most influential scholars of the Ummah. He learned from the best scholars of his time, and was a great example and teacher to those who came after him in Hadeeth, Fiqh, Zuhd, Wara’, Piety, and Patience.
One of his oft forgotten teachers who played an undeniable role in shaping his personality and character, and had a deep, profound influence on him, was his Mother: Safiyyah Al-Shaybaniyah (may Allaah shower her with mercy).
No one doubts the depth of a mother’s influence on her children, and in the case of Imaam Ahmad (may Allaah shower him with mercy), his mother was no different. Rather we would not be far off if we were to count her on the top of the list of his most influential teachers.
Like his father, she was also from the tribe of Shaybaan. Her grandfather, ‘Abdul-Malik, was from the distinguished people of the tribe of Shaybaan, and used to host the Arab tribes who passed by his tribe. Imaam Ahmad was conceived in the city of Marw in the state of Khurasaan and the family soon moved to Baghdad while Imaam Ahmad was still an infant. Imaam Ahmad is reported to have said:
“I was brought from Khurasaan while I was still an infant, and was born over here, and did not see my grandfather or father”.
Imaam Ahmad’s father, Muhammad ibn Hanbal, died at around 30 years of age. He left for them an estate in Baghdad which brought them an income of 17 Dirhams every month, from which they used to spend. This left the young mother, who refused to remarry, to bear the burden of raising her son Ahmad on her own with the very little income they had.
Imaam Ahmad grew up seeing how his mother had forsaken the pleasures of this worldly life in order to care and provide for him, which had a profound impact on him, as can be witnessed in the great Zuhd he demonstrated throughout his life.
Through her knowledge, piety, and patience, she taught him to be patient over the hardships they faced, not in a theoretical way, but rather in a practical way. She withstood the burdens of teaching him and raising him in a pure Islamic upbringing, living with him under the shades of his uncles, and not looking to get remarried or at the other adornments of this life. Her only concern was her son and how to raise him.
Safiyah, Umm al-Imaam Ahmad, was the one who started him in the road of knowledge. She planted in him the first seed for his love of knowledge which knew no bounds.
Imaam Ahmad is reported to have said:
يقول الإمام أحمد عن نفسه : كنا نعيش في بغداد ، وكان والدي قد توفي وكنت أعيش مع أمي ، فإذا كان قبل الفجر أيقظتني وسخنت لي الماء ثم توضأت – وكان عمره آنذاك عشر سنين – يقول : وجلسنا نصلي حتى يؤذن الفجر – هو وأمه رحمهما الله – وعند الأذان تصحبه أمه إلى المسجد وتنتظره حتى تنتهي الصلاة لأن الأسواق حينئذ مظلمة ، وقد تكون فيها السباع والهوام ثم يعودان إلى البيت
My mother used to wake me up before Fajr, when I was 10 years old. She would have the water warmed up for me before I woke. I would perform Wudu’ and we would both pray until the Call of Fajr. She would then walk me to the Masjid, as it was far away and the roads were dark.
Notice, may Allaah shower you with His blessing, how she got her son at this early age connected to the Masjid, notice how at 10 years old she got him used to Night Prayers!
He remained consistent upon these acts throughout his life, and he is reported to pray 300 Rak’ahs every day and night! Even when he was beaten during the Mihnah, and was weakened after all the torture and punishment he was subjected to, he used to pray 150 Rak’ahs! He used to take a small nap after Isha, then wake up until the morning praying and supplicating.
When Imaam Ahmad grew a little older, his mother started sending him to the Masjid on his own to pray and attend the lessons of Hadeeth, which took place after Fajr. Imaam Ahmad is reported to have said:
ربّما أردت البكور في الحديث ، فتأخذ أمّي بثوبي وتقول : حتّى يؤذّن المؤذّن
I might have wanted to leave early to attend the Hadeeth sittings, but my mother would hold me by my clothing and would say: Wait until the Prayer is called for (i.e. meaning until the Athan of Fajr Prayer is called)!
Not only do we see in this an indication of how Imaam Ahmad developed this eagerness for knowledge from an early age, as he wished to leave for the Masjid even before Fajr just to get a chance to sit close to the teacher and able to hear him more clearly, but also notice two things about his mother,
Firstly: That she was the one who directly supervised her son and encouraged him to seek knowledge and did not leave that responsibility to someone else.
Secondly: That her natural love for her only son and her fear for him and his safety did not act as a barrier that prevented him from seeking knowledge, rather she maintained a balance between her fear for her son’s safety and her encouragement for him to seeking knowledge. We see how she would advise him to wait till the Morning Prayer is called for, since at that time people will be heading to the Masjid and she will be more assured about her young son’s safety, instead of him walking alone in the dark empty streets.
Imaam Ahmad was aware of his mother’s care and concern for his safety that he did not wish to do anything that would upset her, or increase her worries for him and his safety.
وكان الإمام أحمد بن حنبل في الخامسة عشرة من عمره، وجاء إلى بغداد عالم عظيم وأقام على الضفة المقابلة لدار أحمد بن حنبل وفاض نهر دجلة وأغرق ما حوله حتى ترك الرشيد قصره وركب طلاب العلم الزوارق إلى دار العالم الوافد، وتنادوا على أحمد بن حنبل، ولكنه رفض العبور معهم قائلا : أمي لا تدعني أركب الماء في هذا الفيضان كان خائفا عليها أكثر من خوفه على حياته، وعاد إليها لتطمئن عليه.
It is narrated that when he was around 15 years old, a big scholar came to visit Baghdad and the students of Hadeeth flocked to meet him and learn from him. However, that scholar stayed in the opposite side of the river from where Imaam Ahmad lived, and the Tigris River was flooding at that time of the year. The other students of Hadeeth rushed to take small boats so that they maycross the river listen to him, and called Imaam Ahmad to join them. But he replied:
I fear my mother may not permit me to cross the river in this situation!
He then returned home to his mother after missing this opportunity out of concern for how his mother may feel about it. Notice (may Allaah shower you with his forgiveness) how not only did she demonstrate great care and concern for the safety of her only son, but, in return, he demonstrated a great example of love and obedience for his mother, and care for her and her feelings, in such a way that his fear of upsetting his mother was much greater than his fear for his own safety!
Imaam Ahmad’s mother made sure to teach him the Arabic Language and gave special care to teaching him the Quran until he had it memorized at an early age. She taught and pushed him to learn Prophetic narrations and Athaar from an early age as well.
It is reported that she even taught him Persian, which she had learned during the time she used to reside in the city of Marw. She spoke to him plenty about the glories of Islam and the Arabs, about their qualities and characters, and their days of glory.
She narrated to him poetry, specifically that which mentions the virtues and glory of the tribe of Shayban (the tribe of Imaam Ahmad), who were decedents of Adnaan, and whose lineage met with that of the Messenger of Allaah at Nizar ibn Ma’d ibn Adnan. She told him the stories of the companions and their narrations, especially that of the Rightly Guided Caliphs.
In addition to all that, she made sure that there was a strong connection between him and the scholars of Baghdad, its Muhadithun, and other teachers. Since he memorized the Quran as a young boy, he took from them treasures of the Sunnah and the Seerah and the stories of the Muslim Battles. She planted in his inner self – from his early childhood – the love of purity, zuhd, and knowledge.
After Imaam Ahmad had learned plenty from the Scholars of Baghdad, his mother told him:
يا بني سافِرْ في طلب الحديث؛ فإن طلب الحديث هجرة في سبيل الله
O Son, travel to gather the traditions [of the Prophet of Allaah], for travelling to seek the traditions is indeed migration for the Sake of Allaah.
She prepared for him some barley bread and salt to take on his travel, and packed for him other needs for his travel, and told him:
ثم قالت: إن الله إذا استُودِع شيئًا حفظه، فأستودعك الله الذي لا تضيع ودائعه
O Son, Indeed whenever Allaah is entrusted with a matter He preserves it, and I entrust you to Allaah, whose trusts are never lost!
With these words from his mother, he travelled to Medina, Mecca, San’aa, and many more cities learning from its Scholars and gathering traditions and narrations to come back after that as one of the most influential scholars of his time.
At the time of her death, Imaam Ahmad was in his thirties. She had lived to see her son grow to be one of the trusted scholars of his time. Imaam Ahmad remembered her actions and sacrifices. He mentioned her, followed her in her footsteps, and imitated her in admiration and sincerity; a matter which had an effect in his Fiqh pertaining to women in general and mothers specifically.
So may Allaah shower her with mercy and gather her and her son, along with the Messenger of Allaah, in the highest of Paradise.
 Adapted from Al-Sirat Al-Mustaqeem from: ‘Fuqahaa Munadillun’ by Dr. Muhammad ibn Ibrahim p. 136-138; Other online references were also utilized.