Who Is Imam al-Bukhari?
Imam al-Bukhari The Foremost Imam of Hadith
IMAM AL-BUKHARI was born on the 13th of Shawwal of the year 194 AH/ 809 CE. His full name is Muhammad ibn Isma’il ibn Ibrahim ibn al-Mughirah al-Bukhari. Bukhara, where he was born and to which he is attributed, did not produce any scholar of note before him; it was only after the emergence of Imam al-Bukhari that Bukhara, in modern Uzbekistan, became known in the whole Muslim world. By the second century of the Hijrah deviant groups started to emerge in the lands of the caliphate, such as the Khawarij and the Rawafid who attacked and defamed the Companions of the Prophet and their collective legacy. Through such attacks on the Prophetic Companions, they also disparaged most of the Hadith, since all the Prophetic sayings and statements were related via these same Prophetic Companions. Without the tremendous efforts, integrity and knowledge of the narrators of Hadith, the teachings of the Prophet would have never reached us and the teachings of Islam would have been forgotten or lost.
Imam al-Bukhari was a pillar in Hadith whose role in the preservation of the Prophetic traditions, and their passing down to future generations of Muslims, is immense. He is most renowned for his compilation of the most authentic Hadith collection, Sahih al-Bukhari, which is taught to students of Islamic sciences across the Muslim world. Imam al-Bukhari’s whole life was dedicated to disseminating the Prophetic Practice and Islamic knowledge.
THE PARENTS OF IMAM AL-BUKHARI
In the case of Imam al-Bukhari, his ascent to greatness and noble qualities started with his parents. His father was mentored by the eminent scholar [Abdullah ibn al-Mubarak but he also studied under Hammad ibn Zayd and Imam Malik ibn Anas. Thus, his father was a great scholar of Hadith in his own right. Shortly after Imam al-Bukhari’s birth, his father passed away and his mother took on the responsibility of raising her family. During his infancy, Imam al-Bukhari had weak eyesight that deteriorated into complete blindness. In desperation, his mother made sincere and constant supplications for him which lasted two to three years. One night, Imam al-Bukhari’s mother received in a dream the glad tidings she was longing for from the Prophet Ibrahim who told her that Allah had restored Imam al-Bukhari’s eyesight thanks to her continuous supplications.67 Indeed, his eyesight was not only restored but became stronger and better than it had been before he completely lost it thanks to the sincere prayers of his mother. It is reported that Imam al-Bukhari wrote at night without using a candle, needing only the light of the moon. As a way of showing gratitude to Allah for
His immense favour, his mother had the young Bukhari memorise the Holy Qur’an by the age of six. And on the instruction and encouragement of his mother, he began attending the assemblies of Hadith. Muslims must show a great deal of respect and express sincere thanks to the anonymous Muslim women and mothers who contributed to the Din and are often unacknowledged and not given enough credit for their efforts. The immensity of Islamic scholarship is not just due to the scholars themselves, but also to those who have mentored them and helped them to follow the way of sacred knowledge.
Imam al-Bukhari completed his studies in Bukhara and, at the age of 16, travelled to perform the Hajj with his mother and older brother. The journey to Hajj was streneous as they often ran out of provision. After performing the obligation of Hajj, he took permission from his mother to remain in the Hejaz, the western coastal region of the Arabian Peninsula which includes the Holy cities of Makkah and Madinah. The Imam only opted to remain in the Hejaz to seek more knowledge as he learnt all there was to learn in his native country. At the age of eighteen, Imam al-Bukhari wrote two texts next to the tomb of the Prophet Muhammad.
One of these is his al-Tarikh al-Kabir which dealt with the biographies of Hadith narrators. Abd al-Qudus ibn Hammam said: ‘I heard many teachers say: “Imam al-Bukhari wrote the biographies of the narrators of his al-Jami[ al-Sahih while sitting between the tomb and minbar of the Prophet . He used to offer two units of prayers for each biography he wrote.’68 The other text is Qadaya al-Sahabah wa’l-Tabi[in. In this work, al-Bukhari praised the Companions of the Prophet and affirmed their trustworthiness and knowledge at a time when some deviant factions were becoming increasingly derogatory towards the Sahabah. Imam al-Bukhari later travelled outside the Hejaz to seek more sacred knowledge. After tremendous efforts and unceasing travelling, he collected Prophetic narrations from over one thousand scholars.
His travelling after the Hejaz took to Baghdad which became the centre of Hadith studies after the death of Imam Malik and his student Imam al- Shafi[i. In Baghdad, he met great scholars such as Ishaq ibn Rahwayh and Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal r. But not only did he learn and memorise thousands of Prophetic traditions, he also appropriated their noble character traits and embodied them in his own life. This is the real way that Hadith is truly memorized and preserved, not by merely writing it down or solely committing it to memory. After seeking knowledge for an additional sixteen years, Imam al-Bukhari had transmitted Prophetic narrations from over 80,000 narrators. He was an exceptional student who approached learning in ways that were unheard of.
A conversation between his students’ highlights well how exceptional these ways were. Hashid ibn Isma’il and two others said: ‘Abu Abdullah al-Bukhari used to attend along with us the study circles of the scholars of Basra when he was a young lad, but he never wrote down anything. This carried on for several days until we said to him: “You come with us and yet you do not write down anything, so what are you up to?”
One day, after sixteen days of him not writing down anything he heard from his teachers, he said: “You have pestered me and insisted on wanting to know what I was up to, so show me what you have written down.” So we showed him what we had written down which was more than fifteen thousand Prophetic narrations. Then, he read all these narrations from memory to the point that we started correcting what we wrote on the basis of what he memorised. Then he said: “Do you still think that I just waste my time and only squander my days?”’
Imam al-Bukhari was renowned particularly for his legendary memory, the dignity and integrity he displayed throughout his life out of deference to his position as a muhaddith, or Hadith scholar, and his stringent and rigorous approach in accepting the narrations of the Messenger of Allah. From an early age, he had a remarkable ability for memorization. A conversation he had with
Ahmad ibn Hafs captures well this tremendous gift for memorisation. Imam al-Dakhili was a muhaddith in Bukhara. One day he related in his circle a chain of transmission (sanad) but Imam al-Bukhari, who was then eleven years old, raised an objection regarding it. Imam al-Dakhili was unhappy that a young boy was telling him he had made a mistake. After checking that chain of transmission against what he had committed to writing, he realised that he had indeed made a mistake. On the request of Imam al-Dakhili, Imam al-Bukhari read the correct chain of transmission as Imam al-Dakhili had written. So impressed with him, Imam al-Dakhili remarked that the young man was going to have a special status with Allah. Imam al-Bukhari never gave up his study of Hadith and continued to commit himself to the collection and memorizing of Prophetic narrations throughout his entire life, as the following interaction shows:
Muhammad ibn Abi Hatim said to Imam al- Bukhari: ‘Have you memorised everything you have put in your work?’ Al-Bukhari replied: ‘There is nothing in it that I have not memorised.’In another famous episode, the scholars of Baghdad wanted to test the legendary memory of Imam al-Bukhari in public. Ten scholars read to him ten different Prophetic narrations with their respective chains of transmission. However, these chains were intentionally changed to confuse him. After reading to him all the hundred narrations, Imam al-Bukhari repeated from memory all these narrations with their correct chains of transmission. Imam al-Bukhari was aware of the importance of leading a dignified and upright life, being entrusted as he was to narrate Hadith and preserve it to posterity. On one of his trips by sea, a fellow passenger began to converse with him and eventually asked for some money from the Imam’s personal purse which contained one thousand silver coins. The Imam obliged.
Later on, the same traveller caused an uproar on the ship, claiming that someone stole his money, a scheme he devised to get hold of the Imam’s personal purse. Understanding what was going on, Imam al-Bukhari threw the purse into the ocean. After an elongated search, the boat officials became upset with the traveller's false allegation. When this traveller directly approached the Imam and unashamedly asked him about the whereabout of his purse’s location, Imam al-Bukhari informed him that he threw it overboard, saying: ‘O ignorant man! Don’t you know that I have spent my life collecting the Hadith of the Prophet, and the world has come to know and trust and believe in me? So how should I expose myself to accusations on my character for the sake of a few silver coins?’
There are conflicting numbers regarding the number of Prophetic traditions that Imam al-Bukhari had committed to memory, although it is fairly certain he had memorized at least 600,000 Prophetic narrations. It was while he was in the circle of Imam Ishaq ibn Rahwayh that Imam al-Bukhari was inspired to compile the now famous Sahih al-Bukhari. Imam al-Bukhari said: ‘I was one day sitting in the assembly of Ishaq Ibn Rahwayh, and one of our fellow companions said: “If only you would compile a concise book containing the narrations of the Prophet.” So I liked the idea and started compiling this book.’
The full title of Sahih al-Bukhari is al-Jami [ al-Sahih al-Musnad al-Mukhtasar min Hadith Rasul Allah wa-Sunanih wa-Ayyamih [The Concise Abridged Compendium of the Hadiths of the Messenger of Allah that Have Contiguous Chains of Transmission, his Practices and Momentous Events]. Out of six-hundred thousand known hadith, one hundred thousand of which Imam al-Bukhari had confirmed as authentic according to the rules he laid out for the authentification of Prophetic narrations, he included 7,275 Prophetic narrations in this collection. Before including any Prophetic narration in his collection, Imam al-Bukhari performed major ritual ablution (ghusl) and performed two units of prayer
The compilation of the Sahih which took over sixteen years to complete was highly praised by the greatest scholars of Hadith including Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal , [Ali ibn al-Madini and Yahya ibn Ma[in . In fact, Sahih al-Bukhari is considered the most authentic text of Islam after the Qur’an. [Abd al-Rahman ibn Rasayan reported that he heard al-Bukhari say: ‘I authored the Sahih over a period of sixteen years and I made it as a proof between me and Allah Most High.’ The science of Hadith is thorough and contextualized. It takes long years and tremendous efforts to familiarise oneself with its different branches; in fact, its study nowadays is a lifetime commitment. It is worth emphasizing that scholarship requires far more than an online search engine, and for those committed to speak only with knowledge, they must be serious about it and formally study it with qualified scholars.
LATER YEARS AND DEATH
In 250 AH, Imam al-Bukhari moved to Nishapur in Central Asia. There he attracted thousands of students, including one who would eventually be known as one of the most famous scholars of Hadith, Imam Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj . Some of the Scholars in Nishapur were upset that their students abandoned their assemblies to join the study circle of Imam al-Bukhari. In order to discredit him, some spread rumours that Imam al-Bukhari moved to Nishapur to spread heretical views. These rumours forced Imam al-Bukhari to leave Nishapur and return to his home city of Bukhara. In Bukhara, he was pressured by the governor to give private lessons to his children but he refused and explained to him that his lessons are open to all students from every walk of life.
His stay in Bukhara did not last long and he was forced to leave his home city as a result of the envy and scheming of unscrupulous people. Finally, he settled in Kharteng, a village on the outskirts of Samarqand. As one can see, reformers and society-builders may have to deal with boycott, poverty, persecution and political pressure. But this should not come as a surprise to anyone, as the ones who are more severely tested are the Prophets and then those who come close to follow their example. The challenges and trials one faces in life are commensurate with the degree of one’s closeness to Allah. In Kharteng, Imam al-Bukhari made the following powerful dua’:‘O Allah !The earth has become too narrow for me despite its vastness, so take me back to You.’
After spending his entire life in the service of the Din and the Muslim Ummah, he had enough of this Dunya and wanted to be with his Lord. On the first night of Shawwal in 256 AH/870 CE, Imam al-Bukhari fell ill and passed away in the village of Kharteng. Multiple sources report that Imam al-Bukhari was seen in a dream after his death. In the dream, the Prophetic Companions found the Prophet waiting and so they asked him: ‘Who are you waiting for?’ He responded, ‘I am waiting for Imam al-Bukhari.’ Though Imam al-Bukhari never physically fought in any battles, he was a soldier who fought to preserve the Sunnah of the Prophet. Not only did he protect the knowledge through which our Creator is known via His Messenger, but he also laid out solid foundations and rules for the integrity of the science of Hadith. May Imam al-Bukhari be an inspiration to all Muslims such that they familiarise themselves with the Prophet also, in order to find peace and contentment in their lives.
This excerpt is from 'Our Legends - Luminaries Who Revived Islam'