|What in ancient Islamic sources is referred to as the Traditionalist tendency cannot be viewed as a single cohesive school, at least as far as theological issues are concerned. In fact, during the one hundred years of its most active existence the school witnessed a wide spectrum of inclinations. In a broad survey of the movement, a distinction should be made between the Traditionalist views of Sufyan Thawri and his followers in the 2nd half of the 2nd century and those of Ahmad b. Hanbal and his school in the 3rd century AH.
Before entering into a discussion of the views of these Traditionalists on such major theological issues as the divine attributes, qadar and faith, we should first elaborate the differences between the earliest adherents of the school and their successors. The dominant tendency among the Iraqi Traditionalists of the second half of the 2nd century AH was one associated with `Alawite affinities and ideals of social justice. In fact, the major personalities of the school such as Sufyan Thawri from Kufah, and Sha`bah b. Hajjaj and Hushaym b. Bashir, his fellow Traditionalists from Basra and Wasit, played major roles in the Zaydite rising of Ibrahim Hasani. Based on what is asserted in historical sources, in its theoretical aspect, the school propagated a view which gave precedence to Imam `Ali (PBUH) over `Uthman, and even over the Shaykhayn. The same `Alawite tendency continued to persist into the coming century among such members of the school as Abu Bakr and `Uthman, the sons of Abi Shaybah, Abu Nu`aym Fadl b. Dukin and Yaha b. Adam. However, with the rising popularity of Sufyan Thawri over that of Ahmad b. Hanbal the view became prevalent among the Traditionalists that obedience to the imam of Muslims was tantamount to the adherence to the sunnah, i.e. whoever gets to ascend to the leadership of the Muslim community, even if he be a wrongdoer (fajir) and even if he resorts to forceful measures to attain to his position, must receive unconditional obedience. In his theory of imamate Ahmad expressed belief in the legitimacy of all caliphs and considered their rank to correspond to their chronological order.
Even though very little has come down to us regarding the religious views of the Partisans of Hadith the scattered evidence point to the fact that they mainly held to the transmitted views of the leading personalities of early Islam and steered clear of the views held by new theological schools. Common beliefs among them included determinism, the non-created-ness of the Quran, the possibility of beholding God on the Day of Judgment, and the legitimacy of the Shaykhayn. They did differ over complex subjects such as the created-ness of Quranic utterances. None the less, their agreement over these issues should not be viewed as an absolute consensus for ever since the early 2nd century AH differences of opinion began to emerge among the various branches of the Traditionalist school.
In the second half of the 2nd century AH, Malik b. Anas, a leading Traditionalist of Hijaz, while confirming the divine attributes asserted in hadiths expressed ignorance regarding their mode of existence. In terms of adherence to earlier Traditionalists, he was closest to Ahmad b. Hanbal, but unlike Ahmad he harbored an aversion for hadiths with anthropomorphic allusions and advised against their transmission. What distinguished Ahmad b. Hanbal from earlier Traditionalists was his approach to religious texts, one that was marked by disinclination to any hermeneutic or rationalist interpretation of the Quran or hadiths. His belief in the need for unconditional acceptance of the immediate sense of religious texts and avoidance of their theological interpretation served to transform the religious framework of his school and that of his followers into a body of received knowledge which was to be understood in its bare outlines. This is in contrast to Ibn Qutaybah, the pupil of Ishaq b. Rahuyah and a representative of the earlier Traditionalist position, who in his Ta’wil mukhtalif al-hadith brings together a collection of traditions inconsistent with theological principles and subjects them to an interpretation based on logical and not theological principles. Ibn Qutaybah’s work is intended to respond to the objections raised by his theologian colleagues and is thus based on a method that is in tune with theirs.