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The meticulous keeper of the word

Abu Abdullah Mohammad Ibn Esmail Al Bukhari painstakingly separated the wheat from the chaff as he compiled the Hadiths

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The “Sahih Al Bukhari”, a massive compilation of traditions attributed to the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) by the Imam Abu Abdullah Mohammad Ibn Esmail Al Bukhari, is universally acknowledged for being the most authentic book in Islam after the Quran. Few non-specialists appreciate the effort that went into its composition. Even fewer acknowledge Bukhari’s immense care in assembling this premier corpus.

Life and times

A native of the city of Bukhara, in contemporary Uzbekistan, Al Bukhari was born in AD810 (194AH). His father was wealthy, and a learned man in his own right, but he passed away when Al Bukhari was still in his youth, which meant that his upbringing was entrusted to his mother, a distinguished woman. She would tend to her son’s various illnesses. Given the poor medical facilities at the time, the child temporarily lost his sight at a young age. His pious mother would not accept that her son be thus condemned and, according to various sources, prayed for his recovery. Her invocation was granted as the future imam recovered his sight.

Perhaps influenced by his mother’s piety, at the tender age of 10, when he was still in elementary school, Al Bukhari showed interest in the science of Hadiths (sayings), then a relatively widespread phenomenon as so many believers wished to emulate the behaviour of the Prophet (PBUH). Within a year, the student excelled in his work, as he had both the texts and the critical chains of transmission that confirmed whether a particular saying was authentic or not. By the time he reached his 16th birthday, Al Bukhari had memorised two key volumes that reported the Hadiths, by Al Mubarak and Al Waki, and had begun to formulate a better system in his mind.

Travel to the Holy Cities

As the family could afford to embark on pilgrimages at a time when such travels were neither routine nor easy, Al Bukhari went to Makkah in 896, and although his mother and elder brother Ahmad returned home, the 18-year-old decided to stay in the Holy City. He composed his first book, the “Qadayah as-Sahabah wal-Tabi‘in” in Makkah, before moving on to his critical and well-known study that compiled the names of the men who transmitted the sayings of the Prophet (PBUH) (“Tarikh Al Kabir — The Great History”) in Madinah. Whether the young man realised at this stage how valuable his work would later become is impossible to determine. Yet, as he travelled throughout the Arabian peninsula and beyond in search of those individuals who could remember what their grandfathers or great-grandfathers may have heard, Al Bukhari became a premier chronicler. Given challenging travel conditions, trips from the Hijaz to Egypt, Syria and Iraq were major accomplishments, and they were genuine also learning opportunities. Over the course of nearly five to six years, Al Bukhari perfected his compilation system to such an extent that on submitting his findings to peers in Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad, few challenged him. It was, to put it mildly, a methodical approach that earned him nothing but praise, leaving most of his interlocutors at awe of his prowess.

A methodological approach

Over a short period of time, even as various authors delved into the Hadiths, Al Bukhari became the Muslim world’s walking encyclopedia, as he could recite more than 7,000 sayings from memory (several hundred of which were repetitive). What was critical for him was to ensure the sayings that were “sahih” (rigorously authenticated) would not be confused with thousands of others that could not be verified, because the chain of transmission was broken or doubtful. Suspicious scholars often tested his knowledge, but none of them could come up with anything against him. Few peers possessed his innate skills, and most acknowledged that the imam was truly a scholars’ scholar.

Bukhari arrived in Nishapur in 864, at a time when the city was the Muslim world’s premier learning centre. His welcome was considered a major event, with throngs gathered to listen to his lectures on Hadiths. Academic jealousies, which were not as pronounced then as in recent times, pitted one Mohammad Ibn Yahya Al Duhli against him, ostensibly because the imam’s opponent disagreed on the pronunciation (lafz) of the Quran as eternal. Apparently, when someone asked Al Bukhari whether the Scriptures were created (makhluq) or not created (ghayr makhluq), the learned man replied, “The Quran are the words of God and they are not created (ghayr makhluq).” Although Al Duhli considered the pronunciation of the Quran as eternal, Al Bukhari added, “Our actions are created and the pronunciation is one our actions.”

Naturally, despite epistemological disputes among scholars, various attempts to disenfranchise men such as Al Bukhari — as well as Al Muslim — came to naught, because all agreed that the Quran was God’s authentic word even if mortals struggled to comprehend it. That was why hundreds of erudite men invented a new field of study to assess the appropriateness of dialectical (kalam) discourses that, regrettably, poisoned the air.

In Al Bukhari’s case, the dispute with Al Duhli dogged him for the rest of his life, which forced the disappointed alim to leave Nishapur and return to Bukhara. His homecoming was controversial as well, especially after he refused to give preferential treatment to the governor’s son. The Abbasid governor of Bukhara, Khalid Ibn Ahmad, was not pleased and secured a decree to banish him from the city. Although the Caliph in Baghdad dismissed his Bukhara governor shortly after this egregious breach of privilege, the imam was saddened by the intense competition arising within the clerical class and, more importantly, by the close links developing between the religious and secular establishments.

“Sahih Al Bukhari”

Al Bukhari could have heard more than 300,000 Hadiths attributed to the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH), even if his collection — which is also known as the Sunnah — probably included less than 3,000 authentic declarations. Over the course of 16 years, the alim, a meticulous scholar, checked each and every adage for compatibility with the Quran. Naturally, he also ensured that the unbroken chain of reporters was painstakingly established, lest unverifiable additions creep into the discourse. No wonder, the “Sahih Al Bukhari” remains the pre-eminent collection, recognised by the overwhelming majority of the Muslim world.

Even if the keeper of the word heard thousands of Hadiths, he nevertheless ended up with 2,602 sayings (9,082, if we count the repetitions) that were sahih (true) or hasan (good) rather than da‘if (weak). Such differences were not deemed essential at the time but Al Bukhari quickly understood why it was important to establish an authentic legacy. Indeed, he was one of the few Ulamahs who wished to eliminate any doubts in what the Prophet (PBUH) may or may not have said, to further strengthen his intrinsic value. How Al Bukhari moved around under whose conditions is the stuff of legends. Suffice it to say that one of his teachers, Eshaq Ibn Ebrahim Al Hantaly — better known as Ibn Rahuyyah — may have encouraged him to compile a book of authentic narrations attributed to the Prophet (PBUH).

The “Sahih” covers numerous aspects of life. Book 32, for example, is devoted to praying at night during Ramadan (tarawih) and the various pronouncements of the Prophet (PBUH) on the matter. Book 41 addresses “Loans, Payment of Loans, Freezing of Property, Bankruptcy” matters, all of which cover practical aspects of life. Book 61 focuses on the “Virtues of the Quran”, whereas Book 75 is on “Invocations”. In fact, it is fair to conclude that the pronouncements are exhaustive. Al Bukhari would devote a quarter-century to teach the Hadiths to believers.

His undeniable authority notwithstanding, and despite the acceptance by several Muslim Ulamahs — including the ultra-conservative Ahmad Bin Hanbal — academic controversies continue to surround the work. Yet, because so many sources existed to confirm that thousands of believers used the “Sahih” when Al Bukhari was still alive, few Muslim Ulamahs then as now cast any doubt on its authenticity. It was nearly impossible to doctor the compilation, they correctly argued and successors today insist upon, because the book established its value long before the author’s death. Of course, the primary controversy surrounded the transmission itself, but dozens of students carefully laid out chain after chain, which eliminated doubts that surrounded the “Sahih”.

Remarkably, Al Bukhari’s work cannot be evaluated without examining the texts he assembled, as the following illustration highlights:

In Book 48, which includes Hadith numbers 805 to 854, the narration first establishes the chain from Urwa Bin Al Musayyab, Alqama Bin Waqqas and Ubaidullah Bin Abdullah, then looks at the story of Aisha, and their narrations were similar, attesting each other, when the liars said what they invented about Aisha, and the Divine Inspiration was delayed, Allah’s Apostle sent for Ali and Usama to consult them in divorcing his wife (ie Aisha). Usama said, “Keep your wife, as we know nothing about her except good.” Buraira said, “I cannot accuse her of any defect except that she is still a young girl who sleeps, neglecting her family’s dough which the domestic goats come to eat [ie she was too simpleminded to deceive her husband].” Allah’s Apostle said, “Who can help me to take revenge over the man who has harmed me by defaming the reputation of my family? By Allah, I have not known about my family — anything except good, and they mentioned [ie accused] a man about whom I did not know anything except good.” [805].

Because a series of issues were addressed in this book about witnesses as well as false witnesses, the narrative on the wife of the Prophet [PBUH], Aisha, and how they were dealt with (829), were especially interesting. The Hadith closes with the following:

“Allah’s Apostle also asked Zainab Bint Jahsh [ie the wife of the Prophet (PBUH)] about me saying, ‘What do you know and what did you see?’ She replied, ‘O Allah’s Apostle! I refrain to claim hearing or seeing what I have not heard or seen. By Allah, I know nothing except goodness about Aisha.” Aisha further added, “Zainab was competing with me [in her beauty and the Prophet’s (PBUH) love], yet Allah protected her [from being malicious], for she had piety.”

No matter how convoluted these sayings may sound, Al Bukhari established how key developments evolved and clarified what the Prophet (PBUH) lived through as far as witnesses were concerned. Above all else, they illustrated his judgment and his legacy to believers.

Legacy to Arabs and Muslims

Al Bukhari opted to move to Samarqand after his banishment from Bukhara but was taken ill in the village of Khartang, where he passed away in 879, the first night of Shawwal 265AH, that was, coincidentally, the first day of Eid Al Fitr that year. He was nearly 62 years old, and the Muslim world lost one of its leading scholars.

Beyond his erudition, his unique legacy is in the immensely important task of compiling the Prophet’s (PBUH) sayings, an irreplaceable gift to Muslim believers. Faithful men and women often refer to these traditions in their conversations whenever the need arises to make a point or emphasise the reasons for a particular declaration. For hundreds of millions of believers, the “Sahih Al Bukhari” acts as a guideline, especially since the Prophet’s (PBUH) Sunnah presented a human life worthy of emulation.

Selected readings

‘Sahih Al Bukhari: The Translation of the Meanings’, 9 Volumes, translated by Muhammad Muhsin Khan, Islamabad, Pakistan: Dar-us-Salam Publications, 1997.

Considered valuable by many, this voluminous translation of nearly 4500 pages is not the best transliteration, but it is as complete as can be. Several online versions of the “Sahih” exist as well, including the highly recommended and searchable site at A printable version is also available at, although 2,602 authentic Hadiths make this version 1,700 pages of text.

Alfred Guillaume, “Traditions of Islam: An Introduction to the Study of the Hadith Literature”, Whitefish, Montana: Kessinger Publishing, 2003.

First published in 1924 in French, this key reprint explains a great branch of Muslim religious scholarship and provides a carefully laid-out and accessible look into the evolution of Hadiths from the Umayyad to the Abbasid periods. It also covers all of the criticisms of Hadith studies by Muslims, provides selections from the Prophet’s (PBUH) sayings, and includes a (dated but useful) bibliography.

Ahmad Mujtaba Hasan, “Bukhari: Makers of Islamic Civilization”, London: IB Tauris, 2008.

This discusses Bukhari’s colourful life along with his mastery of the textual disciplines of Usul Al Fiqh.

Ghassan Abdul-Jabbar, “Bukhari”, New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

A lucid essay that addresses Bukhari’s subtle handling and arrangements of the Prophet’s (PBUH) Hadiths.

Dr Joseph A. Kéchichian is the author of the forthcoming Legal and Political Reforms in Sa‘udi Arabia (Routledge, 2012).

This article is the seventh of a series on Muslim thinkers who greatly influenced Arab societies across the centuries.