Imam Bukhari: His Life and Works part 2


Al Bukhari’s Scholarship

From the time of his youth, al-Bukhari demonstrated an amazing memory and

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encyclopedic mastery of hadith.

Hashid ibn Ismail and others narrated that al-Bukhari used to attend hadith

lectures with them but he never recorded anything. The others chided him for wasting
his time. After fifteen days, al-Bukhari proceeded to read all of those hadith from
memory. At that time, they knew that he had not wasted his time and they also
realized al-Bukhari’s scholastic ability. It was his habit to memorize the hadith
and then to record it later. He said, “Perhaps I hear a hadith in Basra and record
it in al-Sham. Or I hear it in al-Sham and record it in Egypt.”

One time a scholar by the name of al-Faryabi (d.212 A.H.) narrated a hadith with the
following chain to his students: Sufyan from Abu Urwa from Abu al-Khitab from Abu

Al-Faryabi was testing his students by committing tadlis al-shuyukh. [1]

The students had no clue as to who these narrators were until al-Bukhari correctly
identified them for the students.

On a number of occasions his colleagues tested al-Bukhari. In Samarqand, four
hundred students of hadith gathered for seven days trying to stump al-Bukhari. They
would mix the chains of the hadith with different hadith in an attempt to confuse
al-Bukhari but he was never daunted. One of al-Bukhari’s most famous examinations
came in Baghdad.

Al-Bukhari was still young at that time but his reputation had preceded him. The
people of Baghdad were very anxious to meet this young and gifted scholar of hadith.
The scholars of Baghdad, though, had prepared to test al-Bukhari as

soon as he arrived. They met with al-Bukhari and began to read hadith to him. Each
scholar, they were ten in number, read ten hadith to al-Bukhari and yet after every
hadith the scholar read, al-Bukhari was forced to reply, “I do not know [that

Those in the audience who were unaware of what was going on began to look at each
other and doubt this young scholars ability. After the ten scholars were finished,
al-Bukhari reread all one hundred hadith but he read them correctly. The scholars
had mixed the hadith with the wrong chains. Al-Bukhari stated all of the hadith with
the correct chains. Commenting on this incident ibn Hajr stated,

  “It is not
surprising that al-Bukhari corrected their [intentional] mistakes since he was a
scholar of hadith. What is more amazing than his knowing the mistakes is that he was
able to recant the hadith back to them in order after hearing them just once.”

By the time al-Bukhari reached Basra, the scholars of the town were looking

forward to his arrival. They asked him to narrate hadith to them. Thousands of
scholars gathered to hear al-Bukhari lecture. He began by saying,

  “O people of
Basra, I am a young man and you have asked me to narrate to you. I will narrate to
you hadith that you will benefit from [although they are hadith] from the people of
your town.”

His statement surprised the people. He began to lecture, “Haddathana
Abdullah ibn Uthman al-Utaki who said: Akhbarana my father from Shuba from Mansur
and others from Slim ibn Abu al-Jad from Anas who narrated that a Bedouin came to
the Prophet (peace be upon him) and said, ‘O Messenger of Allah, a person loves his
people…’ You do not have that hadith from Mansur [who was from Basra]. You have it
from people from other than Mansur.”
And the whole lecture was of that nature.

Scholars’ Statements Concerning Al-Bukhari

Al-Bukhari received the praise and admiration of almost all of the scholars of his

time and afterwards. Ibn Ha jr once wrote, “If we were to open the door [to
recording] the words of praise for him from those who came after his time, the pages
would be exhausted… It is an ocean that no seashore can contain.”

From his contemporaries, the following statements are noteworthy:

His colleague and scholar of hadith, Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal said, “Khurasan has never
produced anyone like Muhammad ibn Ismail [al-Bukhari].”
Al-Bukhari once said about
himself that he never discounted himself in front of anyone save his teacher Ali ibn
al-Madini. When this was told to Ali ibn al-Madini, he stated, “Disregard his
statement. Al-Bukhari never saw anyone who was similar to himself.”

And his student Imam Muslim, famous for his own collection of Sahih, stated, “No one
could be mad with you except an envious person. I bear witness that there is no one
in the world similar to you.”
Imam Muslim once came to al-Bukhari and kissed him
between his eyes and said, “Allow me to kiss your feet, o teacher of teachers,
master of the scholars of hadith, and doctor or defects in hadith.”
Ibn Khuzaima
said, “There is no one under the skies more knowledgeable in hadith than Muhammad
ibn Ismail.”

Abu Amr al-Khifaf al-NaisAburi stated,

  “I have never seen anyone like him. He is
more knowledgeable in hadith than Ahmad and Ishaq (ibn Rahawaih) and others by
twenty degrees. Upon anyone who says anything about him one thousand curses.”

also said, “If he enters the door and I am narrating hadith, I am filled with fear
of him.”

Fadlak al-Razi was asked which scholar was greater, al-Bukhari or Abu Zara. He
replied that he had traveled with al-Bukhari and changed his travel plans in order
to stay with him. He said,

  “All the time I was trying to narrate some hadith that he
did not know, but I was not able to do so. As for Abu Zarah, I can recite several
hadith that he does not know, although no one can deny his excellence as a scholar
of hadith, especially since he was the teacher of al-Tirmidhi, ibn Majah, and

The science of illah (spotting hidden defects) in hadith is considered one of the

most difficult sciences to master. It is stated that very few of the scholars of
hadith ever really mastered it. It is agreed upon that al-Bukhari, though, is one of
those who did master this science. Al-Tirmidhi said, “I have never seen anyone more
knowledgeable concerning illah and narrators than al-Bukhari.”
He even admitted that
much of the information that he included in his work on illal came from al-Bukhari.

Al-Bukhari’s Character

Al-Bukhari was known to be a very pious person. He did not care for the pleasures of
this world. He would give a lot in charity and would eat very little. He was

also willing to sacrifice for the sake of hadith. He once stated that he went to
visit Adam ibn Abu Iyas and his money was late in arriving. He was forced to eat
grass until someone whom he did not know gave him a pouch full of money.

With respect to speaking about others, al-Bukhari was very careful. He once stated,

  “I have not backbitten anyone since I learned that backbiting is forbidden.”

He was soft when it came to the terms he used in jarh or the “discrediting of
He would not call others liars or words similar to that. The most he
would say about somebody is that the person’s narration is to be avoided. He stated
that if he says that about somebody, it means that it is not allowed to narrate that
person’s hadith.

He demonstrated his honesty and dedication to hadith on many occasions.

In the Biographies written about him we find the following incident,

  “Bukhari was
very careful in respect of his works and loaned them only to the people he could
trust. Once a person happened to mention a hadith that gave rise to the suspicion of
tadlis upon al-Bukhari, which is he had concealed one weak link in the transmitted
chain. Bukhari replied that, in order to obviate such suspicion, he had relinquished
more than ten thousand hadith reported by a particular [scholar of hadith].”

He also recorded the following incident;

During his studentship al-Bukhari had to sail in a boat on a river. He had a
thousand ashrafis (golden coins) in his possession. He was joined by someone who
also boarded the boat and met him reverentially, and gradually developed cordial
relations so that al-Bukhari happened to mention to him about the money he had with
him. One morning the man began to raise hue and cry, saying that his bag containing
one thousand ashrafis was missing. The passengers began to be searched and
al-Bukhari, appraising the situation, threw the bag into the river. The Imam’s
belongings were also searched but the money could not be found… When the journey was
over the man asked al-Bukhari about the bag of money. Al-Bukhari replied that he had
thrown it away into the river. When the man asked him why he thought it necessary to
jettison it into the river and sustain such a big loss, al-Bukhari said,

  “All my
life I have spent in collecting and compiling the hadith of the Prophet (peace be
upon him) and my
integrity has assumed proverbial proportions. How could I afford to lose the far
greater wealth that I have acquired against my life’s blood by acquiring the taint
of a theft?”

The Fiqh of Al-Bukhari

Some narrators of hadith were known for simply passing on hadith without having any
idea as to the meaning of the hadith they disseminate. Such was not the case with
al-Bukhari (and most, if not all, of the early scholars of hadith). Besides being a
premier scholar of hadith, he was also known as a great jurist. His contemporaries
praised his knowledge of fiqh. Naeem ibn Hammad al-Khuzai called him the faqih
(jurist) of this nation. And Bandar (Muhammad ibn Bishr) said that he was the most
knowledgeable in fiqh of his time.

  “Abu Musab has claimed that Bukhari enjoys a rank higher than Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal
in jurisprudence. One of his pupils, when he heard this statement, could not but
express his amazement. Abu Musab’s response to this was: ‘Why do you express your
surprise over this? I should go rather further and

say that, if you compare al-Bukhari and Malik, you would find them bearing

considerable resemblance.’”

Al-Bukhari himself stated that he did not begin to narrate hadith until he had
studied the books of the ahl al-ra’i (or the jurists of, in particular, Iraq).

In fact, his al-Jami al-Sahih is not simply a collection of authentic hadith but is

also a classic work of fiqh. It is for this reason that al-Bukhari did not record
the entire hadith each time he mentions a particular hadith. It was his practice
(though not always) to record only that portion of the hadith that was relevant to
the chapter. This is why he repeats many hadith throughout his work (many times
without mentioning their chains)

Al-Bukhari’s fiqh is clearly seen in his Chapter Titles (tarajim) of Sahih. In those
chapter titles, he states fiqh conclusions that he derived from the hadith and
verses of the Qur’an of the chapter.

Apparently he used the tarajim [chapter headings] as a convenient and relevant place
for expounding his own views or the opinions of others that he supported and wanted
to advocate.

In many cases, his chapter titles or fiqh conclusions can be easily derived from

the hadith but in other cases his chapter titles demonstrate a keen perception and
true scholarship of fiqh. These chapter titles have been the topic of study for a
number of scholars, since they show both the fiqh and fiqh methodology of Imam

There have been at least nine books written solely on the chapter titles,4 not to
mention the discussion of these chapter titles in the different commentaries on
Sahih al-Bukhari.

Unfortunately, in the later years, there was a great deal of envy and competition

between some jurists and some scholars of hadith. Some of these jurists began to
attack al-Bukhari and belittle his knowledge of fiqh.

It seems that the people who made such attacks on al-Bukhari had neither seen nor
read Sahih al-Bukhari or at least, they did not understand it.

Some of the attacks on al-Bukhari came from the Hanafis because they felt that
al-Bukhari showed some disrespect to Abu Hanifa. Al-Bukhari did refute Abu Hanifa on
a number of occasions in his Sahih. But he would

never mention Abu Hanifa by name. Whenever he refuted one of Abu Hanifa’s

opinions, he would always preface the discussion by saying, “Some people say…”
instead of saying, “Abu Hanifa says…”He did this either out of respect to Abu
Hanifa, thereby not refuting him directly, or to show that Abu Hanifa was not
isolated in the opinions that he held and that al-Bukhari refuted. The following
passage from Fadl al-Bari, written by a Hanafi, is quite perceptive:

In the Jami al-Sahih, al-Bukhari has criticized Imam Abu Hanifah at different
places, particularly in the Kitab al-Hiyal (The Book of Stratagems)1 and the Kitab
al-Ikrah (The Book of Indictment)2. It is likewise true that there was some
intellectual disputation between the famous Hanafite of his time, Abu Hafs Kabir and
al-Bukhari, but it would be questioning al-Bukhari’s intellectual integrity to hold
it to be at the heart of these criticisms. What probably is nearer the truth is that
al-Bukhari has criticized the Hanafite approach as it reached him on the basis of
nothing but what he thought was the best. For us, both the Imams are worthy of

1 This is where he hides the identities of the narrators by using their nicknames
that most people do not know them by.

2 Muhammad Abdul -Rauf, Imam al-Bukhari and Al-Sahih (Washington, D.C.: The Islamic
Center, n.d.), p. 16.

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