In 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
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.
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 UmurRasool Allah wasunanihiwaAyyamihi, 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-HumaydiAbdallah 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 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.