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Abu Abdullah Muhammad ibn Ismail al-Bukhari was a widely celebrated 9th-century Muslim scholar. He stamped his authority on the evolution of Hadith literature. He was of Persian descent, born at Bukhara in the year 194/810.
The Imam Al-Bukhari’s great-grandfather Al-Mugheerah was a freed slave who had embraced Islam. His grandfather, Ibrahim, had a son Ismail, who went on to lead an honest and upright life. Ismail passed away during al-Bukhari’s infancy, leaving his family reasonably well-off.
Despite his lean build, the Imam possessed a sharp memory and robust intellect as a child. This would soon take him from strength to strength. Perseverance and strength of purpose helped him finish his elementary studies at the tender age of eleven.
Half a dozen years later, the young lad who preoccupied himself with the study of Hadith, had now gained proficiency in the knowledge of all the traditionists in his hometown. This was a phenomenal, passion-driven feat. It was about to herald in a new chapter in an illustrious life destined for distinction.
A life of travels
After performing the annual pilgrimage in Makkah with his beloved mother and his brother Ahmed in 210 A.H., al-Bukhari traveled far and wide in pursuit of Hadith. He traversed through lands noted for being the nucleus of Islamic learning.
He resided in various lands such as Palestine, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, the Arabian Peninsula, and Iraq. And like a man on a mission, he settled down in these hubs of wisdom for lengthy periods. He memorized every Hadith available from the traditionists, whilst transferring his own wealth of knowledge to them.
Four decades later, in the year 250 A.H, the Imam expressed his eagerness to settle down in Neesaaboor. After people awarded him a glorious reception there, he dedicated his time to teaching Hadith.
Nonetheless, an untoward incident soon necessitated his departure from there. He left for Khartank, a village in close proximity to his hometown Bukhara. There, he spent the remaining years of his life before passing away in 256 A.H.
His physical attributes and character
It would be unfair not to mention that the Imam endured a brief period of blindness as a minor. This was the case until Allah restored his sight to him from His grace. He became no less than a child prodigy by memorizing countless Hadith.
Even during adulthood, renowned scholars like Imam Ahmed ibn Hanbal testified to his sharp memory, nobility, sobriety, vast knowledge, and devotion to worship. He stated: Khorasan has never produced anyone like him.
Appearance-wise, he was of medium height, lean build, and relatively dark-skinned. He acquired his means of livelihood through honest trade. The Imam also lavished a handsome portion of it on the poor and needy and students of knowledge.
The Imam did not lose his temper or bear grudges. Al-Bukhari took to archery for the sake of pleasure and rarely missed the mark. We can safely say that his entire life revolved around an infatuation with Hadith. For this, he gladly bore every challenge and hardship.
Imam al-Bukhari was unmistakably a powerhouse of knowledge in the Islamic and Hadith sciences. Amongst the numerous works that he authored, Sahih Al-Bukhari remains his crowning achievement. He devoted about a quarter of his life to it, as 90,000 of his students ultimately heard it.
His Shaykhs were too numerous to name, but Imam Ahmad, Ali ibn Al-Madani and Ishaaq ibn Raahawahy were prominent ones. It was in reality, a random remark by Ishaaq ibn Raahawahy, expressing a desire for someone to compile a comprehensive book containing only authentic Hadith that had captured al-Bukhari’s imagination.
He finally settled upon 7,275 from a collection of about 600,000 Hadith. This was only after rigorously scrutinizing them via his self-formulated principles of Hadith criticism. Later, scholars strove hard to derive these principles from the Sahih itself since the Imam did not document them.
Furthermore, he arranged Hadith in the Sahih topic-wise and under different headings. This embodied his Fiqh, and these were often borrowed from the Glorious Quran and Hadith.
The method of verifying narrators for Sahih al-Bukhari
His calling was: to compile sound Hadith that were passed on from the Prophet (PBUH), on the authority of a distinguished companion, through an uninterrupted chain of narrators, who were on record undisputedly known to be honorable individuals of sound memory and devout disposition, and whose narrations were found to be unblemished and in harmony with those of other trustworthy scholars.
Another noteworthy feature of the strict guidelines employed in vetting each Hadith for authenticity was al-Bukhari’s dual condition of two consecutive narrators to have been contemporaries and to have met in person, for their narration to be considered. An in-depth study of the lives of narrators was critical to his knowing the righteous and trustworthy from the fabricators and liars.
Moreover, he sought Allah’s advice by performing the istekharah before including any Hadith to his collection. His efforts came to fruition in his Sahih, which consists of over a hundred books, which were further divided into 3,450 chapters that bore headings based on important Fiqh principles.
Both scholars and laymen thus consider Sahih Al-Bukhari a treasure trove of Hadith narrations that we can use for deriving Islamic Jurisprudence principles.
Little wonder then, that Muslim scholars throughout the ages have regarded it as a secondary authority after the Quran. Allah poses a question in Surah az-Zumar, that are those who have knowledge equal to those who don’t?
Whilst the Quran is the perfect word of Allah, the Sahih, on the contrary, is not error-free, and several reputable scholars have endeavored to point out its defects. Even so, both critics and admirers of al-Bukhari’s Sahih have unanimously agreed upon its unrivaled stature.
The significance of Sahih al-Bukhari
To measure the real importance of Imam Al-Bukhari’s relentless pursuit in compiling the Sahih, we must first recognize that the Quran and Sunnah are indeed inseparable. Without being aided by authentic Hadith, there would be no clarity on how to fulfill the obligatory pillars of Islam, prescribed in the Quran.
Hadith provides us with a bird’s eye view of these Islamic tenets through observing the Prophetic example (Sunnah). We also derive the indispensable Islamic Jurisprudence from both these primary sources. This is a suitable point we can make before the straying Quranists, i.e., deniers of Hadith.
If the Quran is the command of Allah, the Sunnah thence is the gratification of that command. Every Muslim should consider it their good fortune that a scholar of Bukhari’s mettle and caliber fell so deeply in love with Hadith, at the right time.
After all, without Sahih Al-Bukhari, what were the chances of our coming in close proximity to Allah’s love, compassion, and good pleasure?