A story from the book “Safahaat min Sabr al-Ulama” [Glimpses of the Perseverance of the Scholars] by Sh. Abdul Fattah Abu Ghuddah:
…And here [we will mention] another account from among the most extraordinary of narratives, which occurred with an Andalusian scholar when he traveled from al-Andalus to the East. He traveled this great distance walking on his two legs [without the help of a horse or camel on which to ride] in order to meet with an imam from among the [great] imams and to acquire knowledge from him. When he arrived there he found that the imam had been put under house arrest and banned from teaching the people. In spite of this, by utilizing some secretive and artful means, the Andalusian scholar was able to learn from him… And history is replete with such strange and interesting occurrences…
….His name was Abu Abd ar-Rahman Baqiyy bin Makhlad Al-Andalusi al-Hafidh. He was born in the year 201 [after the Hijra] and passed away in the year 276, may Allah have mercy on him. He traveled to Baghdad by foot when he was about twenty years of age, and his deepest and most heart-felt desire was to meet with Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal and to study with him.
It is reported that he said:
“When I came close to Baghdad, the news reached me of the difficult trials that had encircled Ahmad bin Hanbal, and that meeting and communicating with him had been made prohibited. I was greatly grieved by this news. I lodged where I was, and the first thing I did after renting out a room for myself was go to the great masjid [of Baghdad]. I wanted to sit in the lessons there and hear what was being studied therein.
I came across a noble gathering for knowledge [at the masjid], in which a man was teaching about narrators of the hadith, elucidating upon the weaknesses of some narrators and the strength of others. I asked someone sitting next to me, ‘Who is that?’ and he replied, ‘That is Yahya bin Ma’een.’
I saw that a place had opened up [in the gathering] close to the teacher, so I moved to fill it and said to him, ‘Ya Aba Zakariyya, may Allah have mercy on you. [I am a] stranger [among you], whose home is in a far distant place. I have some questions, so do not disdain me.’ He said to me, ‘Speak.’ So I asked him about some of the narrators of ahadith I had met, and he praised some of them for their excellence, and warned about the weaknesses in others. I asked him a question about Hisham bin Ammar, and I had asked and gained a lot of knowledge from him [...] when the people of the gathering called out, ‘That’s enough for you, may Allah have mercy on you! Others have questions too!’
Finally, as I was standing up [to leave], I said, “Can you inform me about one other person: What about Ahmad bin Hanbal?”
Yahya ibn Ma’een looked at me astounded, and said, ‘Can such as us judge a person like Ahmad bin Hanbal! He is the Imam of the Muslims, the best among them and the most honorable of them.”
I left the masjid and asked to be directed to the home of Imam Ahmad. I knocked on his door, and he answered it. I said, “Ya Aba Abdillah, I am a stranger from a far distant place, and this is my first time entering upon this land. I am a student of hadith and one who is bound to the Sunnah. I made this journey only to meet you.”
He said, “Enter from the alleyway to the side, and let no eye fall upon you.”
He then said to me, “Where is your home?” I said, “The distant west.” He asked, “Africa?’ I said, “Further than that. I would have to travel across the sea to get from my home to Africa. It is al-Andalus.”
He said, “Your home is indeed a great distance from here. And there is nothing more beloved to me than to help someone like you attain what you are seeking, but for that I am being tried with this difficulty, which you may already be aware of…”
I replied, “Indeed the reached me as I was approaching the city and coming towards you… Ya Aba Abdillah, this is my first time in this land, and I am unknown to its people. If you allow me, I will come to you each day in the garb of a beggar, and I will speak the way that they speak, and you can come to the door. If you narrate to me only one hadith each day [in this way], it would suffice me.”
He agreed, on the condition that I did not attend the gatherings of knowledge and did not meet with the [local] scholars of hadith [so that I would remain unknown among the people].
So I would carry a walking stick in my hand and wrap an old rag around my head, and I would hide my papers and writing instruments in my sleeve, and I would go to his door and call out, “[Give in charity] for the reward of Allah, may Allah have mercy on you!” as the other beggars there used to do. He would come out and close the door behind him, and narrate to me two ahadith or three or sometimes more, until I had collected about three hundred ahadith in this way.
I remained constant in doing this until the ruler who was trying Imam Ahmad died, and in his place came someone who adhered to the madhab of the Sunnah. Imam Ahmad then returned to his teaching and his name became renowned, and he became honored and loved among the people. His rank was elevated, and many people flocked to him to study.
He would always remember my perseverance in seeking to learn from him. When I would attend his lessons he would make room for me to sit close to him, and he would say to the other students, ‘This is someone who has earned the title of Talib ul-‘Ilm!’ and he would tell them my story. He would narrate hadith to me, and I would recite them to him.
One day I became ill, and I was absent from his classes for some time. He asked [the other students] about me and when he heard that I was ill he rose immediately to visit me, and the students followed. I was laying down in the room which I rented, a [cheap] woolen blanket beneath me, a thin cloth covering me, my books near my head [so that I could study laying down].
The lodging literally shook with the sound of many people [entering], and I heard them say ‘That’s him over there…’ [...] The lodge-keeper rushed to me, saying ‘Ya Abd ar-Rahman, Abu Abdullah Ahmad bin Hanbal, Imam of the Muslims, has come to visit you!’
The Imam entered my room and sat at my bedside, and the lodging filled up with his students. It wasn’t large enough to fit all of them and a group of them had to remain standing, all of them with pens in hand. Imam Ahmad said to me, “Ya Abd ar-Rahman, have glad tidings of reward from Allah. In days of health we often fail to reflect upon illness, and in days of illness we don’t remember our health. I ask that Allah raise you to good health and wellbeing, and may He touch you with His right hand in healing.” And I saw every pen in the room moving to write down his words.
He left. The workers of my lodge were very kind to me after that, and were constantly in my service, one of them bringing me a mat to lay on, another bringing a good blanket and wholesome food for me to eat. They treated me better than family because such a righteous person came to visit me…”
He passed away in the year 276 [after Hijra] in al-Andalus. May Allah have mercy on him.
[...] His student Abu Abdul Malik Ahmad bin Muhammad al-Qurtubi said of him: ‘Baqiyy bin Makhlad was tall, strong, and had tough endurance in walking. I never saw him on a ride, ever. He was humble and unpretentious, and would always attend the funeral prayer.’
How excellent was his patience and his passion for sacred knowledge, and how beautiful his struggle to attain and collect it!