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Imam al-Bukhari and the Science of Hadith

August 27, 2013 7:46 am0 commentsViews: 13

4818442622_1eb21e7d5c_zIn Islamic sci­ences, all knowl­edge of the reli­gion comes back to two sources: the Quran and the say­ings and doings of the Prophet Muham­mad ﷺ – the hadith. The Quran is of course con­sid­ered the un-changed word of Allah as revealed to Prophet Muham­mad ﷺ and is thus the foun­da­tion of all Islamic knowl­edge. Sec­ond after the Quran is the exam­ple set forth by the Prophet ﷺ.

But con­sid­er­ing that he lived 1400 years ago, how can we be sure that the say­ings and doings we attribute to him are real and unchanged? To some­one unfa­mil­iar with the sci­ence of hadith, the col­lec­tions of hadith may seem unre­li­able and sus­cep­ti­ble to cor­rup­tion. How­ever, due to the work of Imam Muham­mad al-Bukhari in the 9th cen­tury, the sci­ence of hadith has been pro­tected from such prob­lems using a sys­tem­atic and thor­ough method of ver­i­fi­ca­tion for each and every say­ing attrib­uted to the Prophet ﷺ. Thus, in the 21st cen­tury we can still ben­e­fit directly from the authen­tic say­ings of the Prophet Muham­mad ﷺ.


Al-Bukhari’s Early Life

Imam al-Bukhari was born and raised in the city of Bukhara, in Central Asia

Imam al-Bukhari was born and raised in the city of Bukhara, in Cen­tral Asia

Abu Abdal­lah Muham­mad ibn Ismail al-Bukhari was born in 809 or 810 in the city of Bukhara, in what is now Uzbek­istan. He came from a Per­sian fam­ily that con­verted to Islam 3 gen­er­a­tions before his time. Unfor­tu­nately for the young al-Bukhari, his father died while he was still an infant, leav­ing his upbring­ing to his mother. Despite the dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances, al-Bukhari ded­i­cated him­self to study­ing Islamic sci­ences from a young age.

Study­ing with the schol­ars in and around his home­town, al-Bukhari immersed him­self in hadith stud­ies as well as fiqh, Islamic jurispru­dence. From a young age he showed a unique abil­ity to under­stand com­plex issues of law, but more impor­tantly, he was capa­ble of remem­ber­ing long and com­plex chains of nar­ra­tions of hadiths. For a hadith to be con­sid­ered authen­tic, a reli­able chain of nar­ra­tors is needed to con­nect that say­ing to the Prophet Muham­mad ﷺ. In this, al-Bukhari excelled.

By his late teens, al-Bukhari had com­pleted his stud­ies in Bukhara and set out to Makkah to do Hajj (pil­grim­age) with his mother and brother. Since the rise of Islam in the 600s, Makkah has been a unique mix­ing place for world trav­el­ers. Since all Mus­lims are oblig­ated to com­plete the Hajj at least once, Makkah is con­stantly vis­ited by peo­ple from all cor­ners of the world. For a hadith scholar like al-Bukhari, this type of envi­ron­ment was invaluable.

He stayed in Makkah and Mad­i­nah for sev­eral years, where he con­tin­ued to col­lect hadiths from some of the lead­ing hadith schol­ars of the world, mem­o­riz­ing the text of the hadiths (the matn), the chain of nar­ra­tors (the isnad), and advanc­ing his under­stand­ing of the reli­a­bil­ity of those nar­ra­tors (the knowl­edge of men - ‘ilm al-rijaal). He trav­eled through Egypt, Syria, and Iraq to con­tinue his stud­ies through­out his adult life, finally set­tling in Basra, where he would com­pile his mon­u­men­tal hadith collection.

Sahih al-Bukhari

Although Imam al-Bukhari authored sev­eral works on the sci­ence of hadith, his most last­ing con­tri­bu­tion to Islamic sci­ences was his com­pi­la­tion of over 7000 hadiths, which he called al-Jaami’ al-Sahih al-Musnad al-Mukhtasar min Umur Rasool Allah wa sunanihi wa Ayyamihi, mean­ing “The Abridged Col­lec­tion of Authen­tic Hadith with Con­nected Chains regard­ing Mat­ters Per­tain­ing to the Prophet, His prac­tices and His Times”. This col­lec­tion took him 16 years to com­plete and since its com­pi­la­tion has been con­sid­ered the most authen­tic book of hadith in his­tory, thus the book’s com­mon name: Sahih al-Bukhari mean­ing “The Authen­tic Hadiths of al-Bukhari”.

What makes Sahih al-Bukhari so unique was Imam al-Bukhari’s metic­u­lous atten­tion to detail when it came to the com­pi­la­tion of hadiths. He had far stricter rules than other hadith schol­ars for accept­ing a hadith as authen­tic. The chain of nar­ra­tors for a par­tic­u­lar hadith had to be ver­i­fied as authen­tic and reli­able before Imam al-Bukhari would include that hadith in his com­pi­la­tion. For exam­ple, the first hadith in the book begins:

We have heard from al-Humaydi Abdal­lah ibn al-Zubayr who said that he heard from Sufyan, who said he heard from Yahya ibn Sa’eed al-Ansari who said he was informed by Muham­mad ibn Ibrahim al-Taymi that he heard ‘Alqama ibn Waqqas al-Laythi say that he heard ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab say on the ser­mon pul­pit that he heard the Prophet Muham­mad ﷺ say: ‘Actions are only by intentions…’”

This chain of six nar­ra­tors was metic­u­lously inspected by Imam al-Bukhari. In order for him to con­sider the hadith authen­tic, he had to study the lives of all the peo­ple in the chain in depth. He stud­ied where and when the nar­ra­tors lived, in order to make sure that if some­one nar­rates from some­one else, they must both have been in the same place at the same time and have actu­ally met and dis­cussed hadith. Other hadith schol­ars did not all require evi­dence that two con­sec­u­tive nar­ra­tors met per­son­ally, but Imam al-Bukhari’s strict require­ments is what makes his com­pi­la­tion unique.

Imam al-Bukhari also stud­ied the lives of nar­ra­tors, to make sure they were trust­wor­thy and would not fab­ri­cate, or change the word­ing of a hadith. If he dis­cov­ered that some­one in a chain openly sinned or was not con­sid­ered trust­wor­thy, that hadith was imme­di­ately dis­carded and not included in his book unless a stronger chain for it existed.

Using his strict guide­lines for hadith accep­tance, Imam al-Bukhari was the first to make a sys­tem­atic approach to clas­si­fy­ing hadith. Each hadith he ana­lyzed was labelled as either sahih (authen­tic), hasan (good), mutawatir (recur­rent in many chains), ahad (soli­tary), da’eef (weak), or mawdu’ (fab­ri­cated). This sys­tem for hadith then became the stan­dard by which all hadiths were clas­si­fied by other hadith scholars.

Imam al-Bukhari’s Fiqh

Imam al-Bukhari’s col­lec­tion of hadiths is a mon­u­men­tal achieve­ment and an irre­place­able cor­ner­stone of the sci­ence of hadith schol­ar­ship. Through his work, hadith stud­ies became a sci­ence with gov­ern­ing laws that pro­tected the field from inno­va­tions and cor­rup­tions. How­ever, his Sahih is not just a sim­ple col­lec­tion of hadiths. Al-Bukhari orga­nized his col­lec­tion in a way that it can also be used to help deduce rul­ings within Islamic law – fiqh.

The Sahih is divided into 97 books, each with numer­ous chap­ters within it. Each chap­ter is then titled with a rul­ing on a par­tic­u­lar issue within fiqh. Then within the chap­ter will be all the hadiths that he con­sid­ered authen­tic that sup­port that rul­ing. For exam­ple, the chap­ter about extra prayer dur­ing the month of Ramadan (Taraweeh) is titled “The Supe­ri­or­ity of Extra Prayers at Night in Ramadan” and it con­tains six say­ings of the Prophet ﷺ that indi­cate how impor­tant the Taraweeh prayer is.

Thus, not only is Sahih al-Bukhari the most authen­tic book of hadith ever com­piled, but Imam al-Bukhari also had the fore­sight to orga­nize it into a book of law that helps every­day Mus­lims live their lives as close to the life of the Prophet ﷺ as pos­si­ble. His mon­u­men­tal work would go to inspire gen­er­a­tions of hadith schol­ars, includ­ing al-Bukhari’s stu­dent Mus­lim ibn al-Hajjaj, who would go on to col­lect Sahih Mus­lim, which is con­sid­ered sec­ond only to Sahih al-Bukhari in authen­tic­ity.

One of the com­mon accu­sa­tions made by non-Muslims against Islamic sci­ences and the study of hadith is that there is no way of ver­i­fy­ing the hadith and that they should not be used as a source of belief or law. This argu­ment is based on a very rudi­men­tary and flawed under­stand­ing of how the hadith were col­lected and the incred­i­ble amount of effort schol­ars such as al-Bukhari put into ver­i­fy­ing their authen­tic­ity. With the mon­u­men­tal work of al-Bukhari and other schol­ars of hadith, we have been able to know what words and actions can truly be attrib­uted to the Prophet Muham­mad ﷺ even 1400 years after his life.


Khan, Muham­mad. The Mus­lim 100. Leices­ter­shire, United King­dom: Kube Pub­lish­ing Ltd, 2008. Print.

Sid­diqi, Muham­mad. Hadith Lit­er­a­ture. Cam­bridge: The Islamic Texts Soci­ety, 1993. Print.