Muhammad ibn Ismail al-Bukhari: The Imam of Hadith

It is the Sunnah of Allah that He executes His will through some natural means, which only serves to strengthen the faith of those who examine these signs and ponder over them. History reveals that in Islam’s darkest times, this religion was safeguarded through beacons of light in the form of righteous individuals who upheld the true Islam. Adhering to the Sunnah of Muhammad ﷺ, they opposed injustice. They stood as pillars with their qualities of sacrifice, unflinching faith, morality, spiritual excellence, and intellect. We find that despite the attacks Muslims have faced, the Ummah always persevered and continued. By the will of Allah, it will continue to do so, as long as individuals hold fast to their Deen and follow the examples of those who suffered and triumphed before. The following article seeks to highlight one such individual, Imam al-Bukhari (RH).

Introduction

His full name was Muhammad ibn Ismail ibn Ibrahim ibn al-Mughirah ibn Bardizbah al-Bukhari. He was born on the 13th of Shawwal approximately 194 AH. He was born in the blessed city of Bukhara, which at the time had not produced any wide-spread known scholars. It was only after Imam al-Bukhari and the scholarship that followed was the city of Bukhara, now in modern Uzbekistan, recognized across the Muslim world. His father, Ismail ibn Ibrahim, was a scholar of Hadith. He was a student of Hammad ibn Zaid (RH) and Imam Malik (RH). He also traveled with the eminent scholar Abdullah ibn Mubarak (RH). One of his father’s most significant qualities was that of cautiousness. When asked on his desired state when returning to Allah (SWT), his father maintained that he did not know of a single coin in his possession that had haram-qualities.

Following the birth of Imam al-Bukhari, he was given the name of Muhammad with the intention that he would love the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. Indeed he did, and it was because of his love for the Prophet ﷺ that Imam al-Bukhari stood as a bulwark against an age of Islam fraught with uncertainty. Within the lands of the Muslims, deviant groups began to rise such as the Khawarij and Rawafidh who tarnished the Companions of the Prophet ﷺ and their collective legacy. They did so by slandering and falsifying the Prophetic Hadith, the sayings and stories of the Prophet as narrated through knowledgeable and upright individuals. Without the extensive knowledge of the narrators, their narrations, the teachings of the Prophet ﷺ would not have come to us and Islam would have disintegrated. Imam al-Bukhari was a pillar in the study of Hadith studies and preserved the tradition. He is most renown for his compilation of the most authentic hadith, the Sahih Bukhari which is taught to students of ‘ilm across the Muslim world.

In his character, the most striking quality of Imam al-Bukhari (RH) like many other great ‘ulama is their commitment and contentment with Allah (SWT) and his Messenger ﷺ above all other commitments. All of his life was dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge because he found solace in the life of the Prophet ﷺ. In the present-Western world, Muslims give credence to all sorts of remedies in order for them to find contentment, yet the Prophetic tradition is a last resort. We ask Allah (SWT) that the story of Imam al-Bukhari is an inspiration for us to open the basic books of Hadith and familiarize ourselves with the Prophet ﷺ so that we may also find contentment.

The Mother of Imam al-Bukhari

Imam al-Bukhari’s development into a renowned scholar is heavily indebted to his mother. In a short while after his birth, his father passed away and it was up to his mother to raise the family. During his infancy, Imam al-Bukhari had weak eyesight that manifested into full-blown blindness. Desperate for her son, his mother made excessive, sincere, and constant dua for her son. This period extended for a lengthy two to three years. One night, Imam al-Bukhari’s mother received the glad tidings of Ibrahim (AS) in a dream, who said that Allah (SWT) had granted Imam al-Bukhari vision because of her dua. The eyesight was not even restored at a lesser degree, but at full strength. It is reported that Imam al-Bukhari (RH) would write books without a candle but only from the light of the moon. Such is the power of sincere dua to Allah. What is also pertinent is that we do not know the name of Imam al-Bukhari’s mother. Indeed, those who are not widely known in this world may have an incredible status with Allah (SWT). It was Imam al-Bukhari’s mother who had him memorize the Holy Quran. After completing his memorization at the age of six, his mother then had him sit in the gatherings of Hadith. Imam al-Bukhari grew to love the science. Surely, we owe the greatness of our scholarship not just to the scholars themselves, but also to those who mentored them and pushed them to be great.

One remarkable story was the conversation he had with Imam al-Dakhili (RH). Imam al-Dakhili (RH) was a muhaddith in Bukhara who would narrate ahadith. In his circle,  he narrated a sanad to which Imam al-Bukhari, as an 11 year old, objected to. The sanad is a hadith’s chronological list of narrators from the Prophet ﷺ. Imam al-Bukhari distinctly pointed out that the chain of narration he verbally listed was incorrect. Imam al-Dakhili was taken back as an eleven year old was telling him he was wrong. He then consulted his own writings and found himself to be incorrect and the young al-Bukhari to be correct. Before Imam al-Dakhili (RH) told the young child, he asked for the correct sanad and al-Bukhari was able to verbally list the correction. Impressed, Imam al-Dakhili (RH) remarked that this young man was going to have a special status with Allah (SWT). There are conflicting numbers as to how many hadith Imam al-Bukhari had memorized at this period in life, but it is fairly certain he had memorized at least 7,000 ahadith.

Pilgrimage to the Hijaz

Imam al-Bukhari exhausted his studies in Bukhara and at the age of 16, he made the Hajj pilgrimage with his mother and older brother. Imam al-Bukhari mentions that the journey to Hajj was rigorous as his family would constantly be running out of provisions. After making the Hajj, he took permission from his mother to stay in the Hijaz. The Hijaz is the western coastal region of the Arabian Peninsula, it also contains the holy cities of Makkah and Madina. When an individual whose only devotion is to knowledge, he or she will absorb as much as they can regardless of the place they are. The only thing that matters is their Lord and their love of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. Indeed, the Imam only selected to stay in the Hijaz after he had gained as much benefit as he could in his homeland. Often, students feel that they must travel to other lands away from their family and community in order to gain knowledge, bypassing the fountains of knowledge around them merely because they are not foreign or because they are not “big” scholars.

At the age of 18, Imam al-Bukhari (RH) wrote two texts sitting next to the grave of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. One of them was al-Tārīkh al-Kabīr which discussed the qualities of the Hadith narrators. The other was Qadaya as-Sahaba wat-Tabi’een which praised the Companions of the Prophet ﷺ and affirmed their trustworthiness and knowledge in a time where deviant ideologies took issue with the Sahaba. In the following years, Imam al-Bukhari would travel outside of the Hijaz to gain further knowledge. In his travels, he said he had documented ahadith from over 1,000 scholars. In particular, he traveled to Baghdad. Baghdad became the center of Hadith studies following the death of Imam Malik (RH) and his student Imam Shafii (RH) was there. It was here that Imam al-Bukhari met esteemed scholars such as Ishaq ibn Rahwayh (RH) and Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal (RH).  It was in the circle of Ishaq ibn Rahwayh (RH) where Imam al-Bukhari heard from his teacher that he wished for a compilation of the most authentic and reliable in the most concise way that every Muslim can benefit from. It just settled in the heart of Imam al-Bukhari. His teachers reported that he would take the values of his teachers and that whenever he was given a hadith, he would implement the lesson of the Hadith in his life. This is the way that we keep Hadith memorized, through its implementation. After learning an additional sixteen years, Imam al-Bukhari had transmitted hadith from over 80,000 narrators.

The Ten Scholars of Baghdad

On one of the Imam’s travels to Baghdad, the scholars of Baghdad looked to test Imam al-Bukhari on his memory of Hadith. Each of ten scholars recited ten different ahadith. They recited the matn, or the text of a hadith, as well as its chain of narration called the sanad to Imam al-Bukhari. However, the sanad of the ahadith they recited were purposely altered to confuse the Imam. However, after listening to all 100 ahadith, the Imam was able to recite each of the altered chains of narration in chronological order, point of the flaw, and recite the correct version.

The Story of the Gold Coins

Imam al-Bukhari was someone who upheld his credibility and dignity, knowing that he was trusted by the people to narrate hadith. On one occasion, he was traveling by boat while carrying 1,000 gold coins. There was another traveler who devised a plan to steal the coins. In the middle of the night, the traveler woke up screaming that he had lost his gold coins and described the bag that he had “lost” identical to that of Imam al-Bukhari. The other travelers on the boat searched for the bag but none could find it, and when they could not locate the bag, the became upset with the traveler for waking them up. The traveler came to Imam al-Bukhari and asked him where the bag of coins was. Imam al-Bukhari said that he had thrown the bag, his life savings, overboard. When further questioned on his actions, Imam al-Bukhari said, “...don’t you know that I have spent my life collecting the ahadith of the Prophet ﷺ, and the world knows me as trustworthy? And that they trust me and take my ahadith? Do you want me to sell all of that for a thousand dinars?”

This is the dignity that Imam al-Bukhari carried with him as a narrator of Hadith. This lesson of integrity should also extend to every Muslim regardless of how much knowledge they know. Every Muslim today was placed in the most beloved of Ummahs, that of Allah’s (SWT) beloved Rasul ﷺ. That alone should inspire us to conduct ourselves with dignity. Only for many people it does not, it does not move our hearts an inch knowing that we are of a blessed Ummah, and therein lies the disconnect with the people and the Prophet ﷺ. We should strive to become intimate with the life of the Prophet ﷺ, learn it, and ponder over it in our daily lives, and always be conscious of whether our character and conduct is worthy of being in the company of the Prophet ﷺ and his Companions.

Sahih al-Bukhari

There is no doubt that Imam al-Bukhari is most known for the Sahih al-Bukhari. Its full name is al-Jaami’ al-Sahih al-Musnad al-Mukhatasar min Hadithi Rasooli-llahi was Sunanihi wa Ayyamihi, The Abridged Collection of Ahadith with Connected Chains Regarding the Sayings of the Prophet ﷺ. Out of 600,000 ahadith, Imam al-Bukhari writes 7,275 ahadith in Sahih. These ahadith were rigorously tested for their authenticity before being placed in the compilation to a degree that no one would question it. Upon each Hadith’s rigorous evaluation, Imam al-Bukhari would make ghusl and pray two rakat of istikhara. After its completion over the course of 16 years, he gained the approval of the Hadith masters Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal (RH), Ali ibn al-Madini (RH), and Yahya ibn Ma’in (RH). After the Quran, it is considered the most authentic text of Islam.

The science of Hadith is very thorough and contextualized. The minimum amount of study for scholarship is five to seven years. Obviously, it can be studied for a lifetime. Analysis and work of the Hadith masters is no joke as Imam al-Bukhari took placing Hadith in his collection so seriously that he  likely prayed more rakat in non-required prayer than that which is required by many common individuals. It is worth emphasizing that scholarship requires effort beyond a search-engine and for those that are committed to being one who can speak with knowledge, they must go and formally study it. Indeed, great peril awaits for the individual who speaks on matters of the Deen without proper knowledge whether their conclusions are correct or not.

Latter Years and Death

In 250 AH, Imam al-Bukhari came to area of Nishapur in Khorasan. This is where he would attract thousands of students, including one of the most famous scholars of Hadith, Imam Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj. Scholars in Nishapur were upset that their students were flocking to Imam al-Bukhari, therefore, rumors were spread that Imam al-Bukhari had come to Nishapur in order to spread false information about the religion. The rumors caused Imam al-Bukhari to leave Nishapur and return to his home city of Bukhara. In Bukhara, he was pressured by the governor to have Imam al-Bukhari give private lessons to his children due to their higher social class. Demanding that his lessons be public to people of all walks of life coupled with the envy of other scholars, Imam al-Bukhari was forced out of his home city. He then went to settle in Kharteng, a village on the outskirts of Samarqand. Keep in mind, Imam al-Bukhari was rejected by his own home community in Bukhara. The Saviors of Islam experienced that and much worse from persecution to torture. It is often said that simplicity comes with learning the straight path of Allah (SWT), but how is that possible when those closest to Allah (SWT) are met with tribulations? Simplicity is not synonymous with ease. The scholars of Islam faced many challenges, however, they always faced their challenges while being grounded in their intentions and beliefs. Regardless of any hurdle that came across their path or wherever they had to go, it was all about their love for the Deen.

In Kharteng, Imam al-Bukhari made the powerful dua, “Oh Allah, the Earth, despite its vastness, is becoming narrow and troubling me greatly, so take take me back to You”. On the first night of Shawwal in 256 AH, Imam al-Bukhari developed an illness and passed away in the village of Kharteng. He did not want to be tied down to the dunya and desired to be with his Lord. Many of us in today’s age desire to be with this world and it is enough for us, but we should all strive for that which is eternal in the Hereafter because of its sheer awesomeness and because we stayed on the straight path as a test to get there.

Multiple sources at the time of Imam al-Bukhari narrate a dream after his passing. In the dream, the Sahaba found the Prophet ﷺ waiting. They asked the Prophet ﷺ, “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, nonetheless, that fought to preserve the Sunnah of the Prophet ﷺ He protected the knowledge that binds us all together in knowing our Creator through the Messenger ﷺ. We ask Allah to increase us in our study of the Prophet ﷺ so that we may grow to love him and inculcate his life into ours to the degree where the Hereafter is all we desire.