(Adapted from The Review of Religions, May 1926, Vol. XXV, No. 5)
Muhammad ibn Isma‘il ibn Ibrahim ibn Al-Mughirah ibn Bardiziyeh Al-Bukhari (810-870), better known as Imam Bukhari, was born on Friday, the 3rd of the lunar month of Shawwal in the year 194 after Hijra, in Bukhara, located in modern day Uzbekistan. Of his ancestors, who lived in Persia and were Zoroastrians by religion, Mughira was the first to accept Islam. We do not know much about his grandfather Ibrahim, but his father Isma‘il was a reliable traditionist of the fourth grade. Isma‘il’s reliability and the high position he held among the traditionists can be gauged from the fact that he had sat at the feet of Imam Malik and Hammad, persons of established authority on Apostolic Tradition, and had enjoyed the company of savants like ibn Mubarak. The Iraqis have related many traditions from him, and Imam Bukhari himself has given a detailed account of his life in his well-known work, Al-Tarikh Al-Kabir, and has taken pride in the high and solid learning of his father and his well-earned reputation.
Imam Bukhari was yet in his childhood when his father went the way of all men, leaving his precocious son to the care of his mother, who took him and his elder brother Ahmad to Makkah, where he was brought up and learned the rudiments of knowledge. Bukhara also was the birthplace of Abu ‘Ali ibn Sina (Avicenna) (980-1037)
From his very early age Imam Bukhari devoted himself to the pursuit of knowledge. Jurisprudence, first of all, engrossed his attention. He studied the erudite works of the distinguished jurists of the time, Imam Waqih and ibn Mubarak. At the age of fifteen he had made himself proficient in this branch of learning. Henceforward, he devoted his entire attention to the compilation of the sayings of the Holy Prophet(saw), which he developed from very incomplete and disorganised beginnings into an advanced science.
It is difficult to say with certainty from what canonists Imam Bukhari took his first lessons in Hadith [Traditions], but it is admitted that his subsequent learning and his unapproachable erudition in the science of the Apostolic Tradition owes a deep debt of gratitude to what he learned from Ishaq ibn Rahwia and ‘Ali ibn Al-Madani. Besides these two, his knowledge owes a great deal to Muhammad ibn ‘Abdullah Ansari, Adam ibn Ayas, Qutaibah ibn Sa’eed, Ahmad bin Hanbal, ‘Abdullah ibn Hammad, ‘Abdullah ibn Al-‘As, Abu Hatim Al-Razi, etc., etc.
So great was Imam Bukhari’s thirst for the acquisition of knowledge that there was hardly a traditionist in Baghdad, Basra, Khorasan, Kufa, Khwarezm, the Hijaz and Syria to whom he was not indebted in some way or other in the collection of the sayings of the Holy Prophet(saw). The total number of the narrators from whom he relates these sayings reaches 1800, most of whom are traditionists of the first grade.
Imam Bukhari was gifted with a remarkably strong memory which proved to be of great use to him in acquiring high proficiency in the science of Apostolic Traditions. So tenacious was his memory that he never forgot a saying of the Holy Prophet(saw) related before him only once. He was at first against committing to paper the sayings of the Holy Prophet(saw) he collected from various sources, on the plea that it made a person wholly dependent on books. Later on, however, he changed his mind and wrote down all the sayings of the Holy Prophet(saw) he knew.
Imam Bukhari’s reputation spread far and wide before he had completed his course of study. He was looked upon as a traditionist of established authority. On account of a large number of the sayings of the Holy Prophet(saw) that he knew by heart, coupled with his highly-cultured intellect and refined intelligence and acumen, he came to wield such a great influence in this special department of knowledge that scholars and savants of acknowledged learning and fame looked upon him as a great authority on the science of the Apostolic Tradition whose verdict as regards the authenticity or unreliability of a tradition was unquestionable. Students from far and near gathered round him to take lessons in Hadith, and distinguished adepts in this Science admitted his superiority.
“Khorasan has not produced a man like Muhammad ibn Isma‘il,” Imam Hanbal used to say. The ‘Ulama [(Muslim clergy)] of his time were struck with wonder at the extent and versatility of his knowledge. “Truly, he was a sign from among God’s signs walking on earth. He was not created but for the science of Tradition.”
Distance and the inconveniences of travel were no impediments in his way. For the acquisition of knowledge and for paying visits to scholars of high learning and spotless integrity, he would go anywhere. He paid a second visit to Egypt and Syria, stayed in the Hijaz for six years and paid frequent visits to Kufa and Baghdad, then the centres of knowledge and learning, visited Basra four times and stayed there for years, seeing Makkah off and on during the intervals. But most important was his journey to Neshapur, at that time the seat of the science of tradition and a rendezvous for savants and scholars. Neshapur was the birthplace of his contemporary, Muslim ibn Hajjaz, the famous author of the collection called Sahih Muslim, and his teacher Imam Muhammad ibn Yahya. They had spread the fame of Neshapur far and wide. To visit Neshapur in the presence of such eminent scholars and to establish his reputation as a first-class traditionist was no small achievement for Imam Bukhari. On his arrival in Neshapur he was accorded a welcome as was never accorded to any monarch or potentate before.
In Neshapur he devoted his whole time and energy to the teaching of Hadith. He attracted students from far and near and even scholars like Imam Muslim used to attend his classes. Struck with the depth and breadth of Imam Bukhari’s knowledge and the variety and many-sidedness of his learning, Imam Muslim one day kissed his forehead in the presence of the whole assembly exclaiming, “Allow me, O King of the realm of Hadith, that I should owe allegiance to thee.” Imam Muhammad ibn Yahya had told his students to attend Imam Bukhari’s lessons in Hadith. He was himself a frequent visitor to him. He did not hesitate to admit Imam Bukhari’s superiority. One day, being asked “whether the words of the Qur’an which we speak are created.” The Imam replied, “The Qur’an being the Word of God is not created, but the words of the Qur’an being recited by our tongues become our words and our words are the result of the motion of our tongues, hence they are our actions, and our actions are created.” This subtle answer of the Imam to a very complicated and debated question, was too much for the ordinary intelligence to comprehend and slanderous tongues began to decry him. His traducers gave so much publicity to this matter that the Imam lost his popularity with the masses. Even Imam Zahli turned against him, though Imam Muslim began to respect him all the more for the solidity of his views on multifarious questions. When the popular difference with his views assumed an acute form he left Neshapur for Bukhara, his native place.
The inhabitants of Bukhara, swayed by patriotic feelings, extended him a hearty welcome and the gentry and nobility received him two miles outside the town.
He lived in Bukhara for some years in peace, but his independent and self-respecting disposition soon involved him in trouble and he had to bid farewell to Bukhara and lived the last years of his life in a small village near Samarkand, with his few relatives.
He was deeply grieved at his expulsion from Bukhara by the orders of the Amir and in the paroxysms of grief he would often exclaim, “My God, the earth has become straitened for me in spite of its spaciousness.”
The private and public character of the Imam was spotless. Independence, out-spokenness and fearless courage were the distinguishing features of his character. He was simple and unassuming, but very self-respecting. In the last years of his life he was expelled from Bukhara by the orders of the Amir because he would not debase himself before him and barter his learning for filthy lucre. The Amir wished him to recite the Sahih Al-Bukhari and Al-Tafsir Al-Kabir in his Durbar. The Imam replied that he would not humiliate learning by presenting himself at royal courts, and that if the Amir had a true love for knowledge he should come as an ordinary student to attend his classes. The Amir also wished the Imam to teach the princes in his palace. The Imam replied that he would make no distinction between a peasant and a prince as students. If the Amir so wished, the princes could join his classes as ordinary students. This was too much for a great monarch to bear and he ordered his expulsion. The Imam preferred expulsion to the humiliation of knowledge and learning.
He died at the age of 62 years in the year 256 of the Hijra on the tenth day of Shawwal. The news of his death sent a shrill of horror in Samarkand. His bier was followed by the whole city and great ‘Ulama and nobles were weeping. He was buried at midday.
He prided himself on his independence of character. “I have never considered myself lower in status than anybody else except my teacher, ‘Ali ibn Al-Madani,” he would often say. Imam Bukhari never accepted any offer that was made to him by any monarch or a noble in the form of a stipend. He was satisfied with what small property his father had left. He invested his money in trade and the income was sufficient to meet his extremely simple and frugal way of living. He was of those very few people who, in spite of the great influence they wielded and the high reputation they acquired in their lifetime, never disdained to garner useful information from very ordinary persons. In the list of his teachers he records the names of some of his fellow-students. He was absolutely unbiased in the collection and selection of traditions. There are to be found traditions in his collections which contradict some cherished conviction of the Ahl-Al-Sunnah, yet he included them in his collection because tested by his standards they proved to be authentic and reliable.
Imam Bukhari was very fond of physical exercise. He was a good horseman and a dead shot. Though he led a very simple, unostentatious and purely intellectual life, yet he was very particular about cleanliness. He would not even allow a straw to remain lying on his mat. The number of his pupils was very large. Students came from all parts of the Muslim world to sit at his feet and men of learning were proud of including themselves among his disciples. His pupils included Abu ‘Isa Muhammad ibn ‘Isa Al-Tirmidhi, Abu ‘Abdur Rahman Nisai and Muslim ibn Hajjaj, three out of the six pillars of ‘Ilm-ul-Hadith. Ibn Khuzaimah, Muhammad ibn Nasr, Salih ibn Muhammad, who afterwards became a writer of great authority and reputation, were among his ordinary students.
From the days of studentship Imam Bukhari had a great liking for literary production and this liking remained with him till his death. At the age of 18 he wrote a book, Qadaya as-Sahabah wat-Tabi‘in, which surprised learned savants. Al-Tarikh Al-Kabir was written in moonlight at Madinah.
His works include Al-Tarikh Al-Ausat, Al-Tarikh Al-Saghir, Khalq Af‘aal-Al-‘Ibaad, Al-Qira’atu Khalf Al-Imam, Al-Adab-Al-Mufrad, Kitab-Al-Manaqib, Kitab-Al-Fawa’id, Kitab-Al-Mabsoot, Kitab-Al-Du‘afa, Al-Jami‘-Al-Kabir.
Al-Jami’ Sahih Al-Bukhari is his best production. This book has rightly been called the most reliable book after the Book of God.