It is a well-known fact that there are two fundamental sources for Islamic teachings: the first being the Holy Qur’an, the exact words of the Almighty Allah, and the second being the Hadith, which is the collection of the sayings, deeds, and approvals accurately narrated from the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ.
A careful perusal of the Hadith tells us so much that we know more about the life of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ than the biography about probably our own kinsmen and nearest relatives. For no human being (be he a Prophet or other) has so much recorded about him with such detail as Prophet Muhammad ﷺ.
However, what is more important for us to know is the meticulous ways in which those Ahadith (traditions) have been preserved and transmitted to later generations. To give an illustration of those interesting methods, it is enough for us to mention that the scholars who compiled the Ahadith would not accept a Hadith or record it unless they knew exactly how it reached the person who reported it to them. This meant the Hadith scholars or compilers insisted on knowing the chain of transmitters of the Hadith up to Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. Then they would check on the character, memory and piety of each one in the chain of narrators.
In the history of Islam there are a few prominent names of compilers of the Hadith. But the leader of all compilers of the Hadith was Al-Imam Al-Bukhari, whose book “Sahih al-Bukhari” (the authenticated book of Al-Bukhari), is considered the most important single book in the Hadith compilation. For it contains the most authentic reports about Prophet Muhammad’s ﷺ own words, actions and tacit sanctions. According to Al-Hafiz ibn Hajr, in his preface to his book “Fath-ul-Bari”, the total number of Hadith our hero compiled in Sahih Bukhari is 7563, and is 2602 without repetition of the Hadith text. These were selected out of no less than half a million Hadiths he had collected, analyzed and meticulously scrutinized. But who was Al-Imam Al-Bukhari?
His name was Muhammad ibn Ismail, who was born in the town of Bukhara in the area south of China today. He was born to a rich family. But to Al-Bukhari money was not an aim but a means to attain the Pleasure of Allah. Despite his generous contribution in building scores of charity homes and schools and providing free meals to hundreds of people, our hero himself lived an ascetic life. We are told that when he fell ill his urine was analyzed (a common procedure with Muslim physicians more than 1100 years ago!). The physician said,”This is the urine of a man who lives on plain bread”. Then he insisted that he add something else to bread in his meals.
His thirst for knowledge and his pursuit of the Hadith made his life one continuous chain of trips from one place in the Muslim world to another, trips that covered scores of thousands of miles. We are told that Al-Imam Al-Bukhari met and studied with no less than 4, 000 teachers. He would travel hundreds of miles just to learn one Hadith or to investigate its sources, and authenticity.
Besides this indefatigable persistence in learning, our hero was also well-known for his intelligence and special gift of memory.He did not depend on pen and paper as much as he relied on his mind and memory. People examined the capabilities of Imam Bukhari in the science of Hadith repeatedly but he always remained successful as a result of Allah’s gift of intelligence and superb memory.
Hafiz Ahmad ibn `Adi describes: “When the people of Baghdad had learnt that Imam Bukhari was due to arrive there, the Muhaddithin of Baghdad decided to test him by changing the text and chains of transmission of one hundred Ahadith. They joined the chain of one Hadith with the text of another and attached the chain of this Hadith with the text of the prior. Like this, they mixed up the text and chains of transmission of one hundred Ahadith and gave these to people who would test Imam Bukhari with these.
“When Imam Bukhari arrived at Baghdad, the people held a gathering in his honor, in which most of the Ulama, nobles and public were present. One person stood up according to the plan and asked a question regarding a Hadith with its altered chain of transmission. Upon this, a second person stood up and recited in similar manner. Like this, the people completed the hundred Ahadith and awaited Imam Bukhari’s reply. He said that he had not apprehended those Ahadith. When he saw that everyone had finished asking questions, he stood up and described the chain of transmission of the first Hadith read and then gave its correct chain. Like this, he detailed the faulty chains on the Ahadith of all one hundred set up by the scholars. He had given the correct chains of transmission to every Hadith. When he finished, the entire audience was full of praise and recognition of the superiority and greatness of Imam Bukhari.”
But the richness of our hero and the respect he commanded among his contemporaries never changed his humble and modest nature. Imam Bukhari was a simple and hard working person. He would fulfill his own needs by himself. Despite having a lot of wealth and status, he always kept the minimum number of servants required and never indulged himself in this matter. Muhammad ibn Hatim Warraq, who was one of his main disciples, says: “Imam Bukhari was establishing an inn near the city of Bukhara and was placing the bricks with his own hands. I came forward and said ‘Leave the laying of the bricks for this building to me.’ But he replied, ‘On the day of judgement, this act will be of benefit to me.'”
Warraq goes on to say: “When we accompanied Imam Bukhari on a journey, he would gather us in one room and would stay by himself in a separate room. Once I saw Imam Bukhari get up between fifteen and twenty times during the night and every time, he lit the lamp with his own hands. He took some Ahadith out, marked them and then placed his head on his pillow and laid on his couch. I said to him, ‘Why did you go through all this trouble during the night, when you could have woken me up [so that I could help you].’ He replied, ‘You are young and are in need of sound sleep and I did not want to disturb your sleep.'”
Imam Bukhari died in Samarkand on the night before Eid-ul-Fitr in the year 259 A.H. He was not only a scholar, worshipper, a devotee and a prosperous man, but he always feared Allah and shone with the love of the Messenger sallallahu `alayhi wa sallam. The virtuous outpourings he gave to the world during his life are still being given today and as the Muslim Ummah goes about its daily acts of worship, they realize how important the role played by Imam Bukhari was. He compiled and circulated the Ahadith of the Prophet ﷺ wherever possible and Allah spread his status to every corner of the world.