Its known that Allah `azza wa jall chooses from amongst Mankind those whom He wishes in order that they may carry out certain tasks. He chooses people and then He strengthens them, prepares them and builds their character, inner power and faculty of mind so they can fulfill the Qadr. Sometimes, in order to best prepare them, Allah subhanahu wa taala sends them glad tidings ahead of their trial.
Below are some incidents translated from Imam al-Maqdisis book Kitab Mihnat al-Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal where he has gathered many narrations that speak of the bushra (glad tidings) given by Allah to Imam Ahmad before the great Mihna (trial) and after.
It is narrated from Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn al-Hajjaj al-Marwadhi that he said:
I was sitting one day on an arched bridge (al-Tabanain) when I was approached by two men who were escorting a bedouin man on a camel of his. They stopped by me and said, This is him, here he is sitting. The bedouin said to me, Are you Ahmad ibn Hanbal? I said, No, I am his friend, what do you need? He said to me, I want him. So I said, Shall I take you to him? He said, Yes, by Allah.
So I led the way in front of him until I reached the door of Abu Abdillah (Ahmad ibn Hanbal) whereupon I knocked the door and they said, Who is it? I said, I am al-Marwadhi. They said, Come in so I said, I and the one with me? They said, (Yes) You and the one with you. When he saw Abu Abdillah, the bedouin said, Yes, by Allah three times ” and he greeted him. He (Ahmad) said, What do you need?He said, I am the messenger of the Messenger of Allah (sallallahu `alayhi wa sallam).He said, Woe to you, what are you saying? He said, I am a bedouin man, between my village and al-Madinah is 40 miles and my family sent me to al-Madinah to purchase some wheat and dates for them. Night fell over me so I prayed Isha in the Mosque of the Prophet (sallallahu `alayhi wa sallam) then I lied down. As I was sleeping, a person came to me and shook me saying, Will you carry out a task for the Messenger of Allah (sallallahu `alayhi wa sallam)?I said, Yes, by Allah!So he seized my left arm by his right hand and took me to the wall of the grave of the Prophet (sallallahu `alayhi wa sallam). He stood me at the head (of the grave) and I said, O Messenger of Allah Then I heard a caller from behind the wall saying, Will you carry out a task for us?I said, Yes, by Allah. Yes, by Allah.So he said, Go forth until you reach Baghdad (or al-Zawraa” al-Marwadhi was unsure which), and when you reach Baghdad ask for the house of Ahmad ibn Hanbal. When you meet him, say The Prophet (sallallahu `alayhi wa sallam) sends you his salaam and he says to you: Indeed Allah will test you with a great test, and surely he shall place you in a trial, but I have asked Him to make you patient therein, so do not worry.
Abu Bakr: There was 25 days between the time the bedouin departed and the start of the Mihna (trial of Imam Ahmad).
It is narrated from Rabiibn Sulayman that he said:
Al-Shafii wrote a letter to Abu Abdillah Ahmad ibn Hanbal, then he said to me, O Abu Sulayman, go to Iraq with this letter of mine and do not read it. So I took the letter and left Egypt until I arrived at Iraq and came to the mosque of Ahmad ibn Hanbal. I caught up with him praying salat al-Fajr so I prayed with him but I did not pray the Sunnah so I stood up after the prayer to pray it. He began to look at me until he recognised me, so when I finished praying I greeted him and gave him the letter. He began to ask me about al-Shafii for a long while before looking at the letter. Then he opened it and read it until he reached a certain place whereupon he started to cry. Then he said, I hope that Allah Taala fulfils what Al-Shafii has said. I said, O Abu Abdillah! What did he write to you? He said, He mentions in his letter that he saw the Prophet (sallallahu `alayhi wa sallam) in his dream and he said, O Ibn Idris (al-Shafii), give glad tidings to this young man Abu Abdillah Ahmad ibn Hanbal that he will soon be tested in the Deen of Allah. He will be called to say: The Quran is created so let him not say that and he will indeed be beaten with a whip but Allah will surely spread for him knowledge that will not disappear until the Day of Judgement. So I said, This is a glad tiding!
Abu Bakr al-Khuffaf: Husayn said, I saw the Prophet (sallallahu `alayhi wa sallam) in a dream and I said to him, O Prophet of Allah! What is the state of Ahmad ibn Hanbal? He said, Musa `alayi al-salam will come to you so ask him. And behold there I was with Musa, so I asked him. He said, Ibn Hanbal has been tested in ease and difficulty and he has been found to be truthful so he has been ranked with the Siddiqin (the Truthful).I said, So what is the state of Bishr? He said, Bishr has been taken from the face of the earth and there is no slave more pious than him.So I said, O Prophet of Allah! What is the state of those who speak (falsehood) regarding the Quran?He said, Upon those is the Curse of Allah. Then I heard a response in the air saying, Yes, upon those is the Curse of Allah.
Muhammad ibn Ishaq: In my dream, I saw as if the Day of Judgement had come and I saw Allah, the Lord of Glory, hearing His speech and seeing only Light. He said, What do you say about the Quran? I said, (They are) Your Words O Lord of the Worlds. So He said, Who has informed you? I said, Ahmad ibn Hanbal.He said, Ahmad is thiqah (reliable and trustworthy).Ahmad was then called and it was said to him, What do you say about the Quran? He said, Your Words, O Lord of the Worlds.He said, Where did you learn this? Ahmad then laid out two papers, on one of them was written (the isnad) Shubah from al-Mughirah and in the other was written Ataa from Ibn Abbas So Shubah was called and Allah jall wa alaa said to him What do you say about the Quran?He said, Your Words, O Lord of the Worlds. He said, Where did you learn this? He said, It was narrated to me from Ataa from Ibn Abbas ” Ataa wasnt called” and (instead) Ibn Abbas was called, so Allah Taala said to him, What do you say about the Quran? He said, Your Words O Lord of the Worlds. He said, Where did you learn this? He said, Muhammad the Messenger of Allah (sallallahu `alayhi wa sallam) has informed us. Then the Prophet (sallallahu `alayhi wa sallam) was called and Allah Taala said to him, What do you say about the Quran?He said, Your Words O Lord of the Worlds. He said, Who has informed you?He said, Jibril, from You. Allah Taala then said, You have spoken the truth and they have spoken the truth.
Abu Bakr al-Mawardhi: A man from Tarsus said to me, One night, I thought about Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Hanbal, his patience over being whipped and how he showed strength in that despite his (physical) weakness. Then I wept and (that night), I saw in my sleep as if a voice was calling out saying, So what then, were you to see the Angels in the skies whilst he was being beaten, and they were boasting about him. I said, And did the Angels know of Ahmads beatings? He said, There remains no Angel in the sky except that it has witnessed over him whilst he was beaten.
Ali ibn al-Madini: Allah `azza wa jall has given honour to this Deen by two men, of whom there is no third; Abu Bakr al-Siddiq during the days of al-Ridda (apostasy) and Ahmad ibn Hanbal during the days of al-Mihna (trial).
Ibn al-Madini (rahimahullah) also said: No-one has stood up for Islam after the Prophet (sallallahu `alayhi wa sallam) like Ahmad ibn Hanbal did.Al-Maymuni said, O Abal-Hasan! Not even Abu Bakr al-Siddiq?He said, Not even Abu Bakr al-Siddiq, because Abu Bakr had helpers and supporters around him.
Ishaq ibn Rahawayh: I went out with Ahmad ibn Hanbal in his final Hajj and when we reached the end of al-Madinah we were approached by an old man being carried on a stretcher. His eyebrows had drawn over his eyes due to old age and he had tightened over them with a head cloth. There were young and old men around him and someone said: Which of you is Ahmad ibn Hanbal? The people pointed their fingers at Ahmad and the man approached him until he stood in front of him. He said, Are you Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Hanbal? He said, Thats what my mother affirms He said, Do you recognise me? He said, By Allah, no. He said, I am from the sons of Ubayd Allah ibn Musa ibn Jafar ibn Muhammad ibn Ali ibn al-Husayn ibn Ali ibn Abi Talib. I saw in a dream yesterday the Prophet (sallallahu `alayhi wa sallam), Abu Bakr and Umar. They were crossing the canal of Baghdad when the cloak of the Messenger of Allah (sallallahu `alayhi wa sallam) fell from his right shoulder. Then you, O Ahmad rushed forth and brought the cloak until you placed it on the shoulder of the Messenger of Allah (sallallahu `alayhi wa sallam). So the Prophet (sallallahu `alayhi wa sallam) turned to you and so did Abu Bakr and Umar (radhiallahu `anhuma) and they said to you, Rejoice, for you are our companion tomorrow in Paradise. The old man then said to those who were with Ahmad, The cloak that Ahmad returned to the shoulder of the Messenger of Allah (sallallahu `alayhi wa sallam) is the Sunnah of the Messenger of Allah, which Ahmad will return to the people.
Out of his humbleness and fear, whenever this incident was mentioned, Imam Ahmad would say, I wish a mountain could come over me and I never heard this!
Abu Abdillah Muhammad ibn Khuzaymah in Alexandria said:
When Ahmad ibn Hanbal died, I fell into a deep sorrow and night came to pass. So I saw himآ in my dream and he was walking in pride. I said to him, O Abu Abdillah! What is this walk? He said, This is the walk of the servants of the Home of Peace (i.e. Paradise). I said, What did Allah do to you? He said, He has forgiven me and turned to me and adorned me with shoes of gold and He said to me: O Ahmad, all this is for your statements regarding the Quran being my Speech. Then He said, O Ahmad, call upon Me with the supplications that have reached you from Sufyan al-Thawri which you used to supplicate with in the life of the world. So I said: O Lord of everything, by Your Power over everything, do not ask me anything but instead forgive me for everything. So He said to me, O Ahmad, this is Paradise. Stand and enter it. So I entered it and behold there was Sufyan al-Thawri and he had two green wings flying from one date palm tree to another saying,
And they will say: All the praises and thanks be to Allah Who has fulfilled His Promise to us and has made us inherit this land. We can dwell in Paradise where we will; how excellent a reward for the workers! [al-Zumar: 74]
So I said, What happened to Abd al-Wahhab al-Warraq? He said, I have left him in a sea of Light, in a water of light whereby he visits the King of Forgiveness. I said, And what happened to Bishr? He said, Bakh bakh! And who can be like Bishr? I have left him in front of al-Jalil (Allah Himself), and in front of him is a table filled with food. Allah, the Majestic comes to him and says, Eat, O one who did not eat (in the world)! Drink, O one who did not drink! Enjoy yourself and take delight, O one who did not take delight!
[Kitab Mihnat Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal, Maktabat al-Hady al-Muhammadia, pg. 9-24]