When we discuss a scholar of the highest caliber, such as Imam Al-Bukhari or the founders of the major schools of Fiqh, it is important to know what sort of person that scholar was. The first quality we note in Al-Bukhari was his great piety. He was a man who frequently spent hours in voluntary night worship. This gave him a sense of closeness to God which reflected itself in his dealings with other people, particularly with those who were in a vulnerable position. A little example could illustrate that. His maid wanted to go through his room into other parts of the house, and she tripped over his inkstand where he was working. He said to her: ‘Look how you walk!’ She said: ‘If there is no path way, how would I walk?’ He stretched his two hands, looked at her and said: ‘You may go. I have set you free.’ Someone suggested to him that the maid had made him angry by her careless walk, spilling the ink over the place. He replied: ‘I have contented myself.’ It is in this answer that we discern the sort of piety Al-Bukhari was keen to maintain. He set the girl free only because he sensed that his reaction to her clumsy walk, expressed in a gentle rebuke, was perhaps a little too strong and irritated her, particularly because of the presence of some guests. The compensation he gave her for that was her freedom.
Imam Al-Bukhari inherited a large sum of money which he invested in business through a trusted partner. It gave him good returns which paid for all his expenses. In fact he spent most of his income on others, as he was very generous with whatever he had. He would not hesitate to give away whatever he had if he felt that the situation required it. Sometimes he would give everything he had in charity, leaving himself with nothing until he received his next payment from his partner. He was very generous with his students, helping them with money when they needed help.
We should contrast that with the sort of luxurious life he could have led, had he wished to utilize his learning to earn an income. There would be no shortage of rulers and governors who would be happy to give him a top position. But he sought none, feeling that his own income put him in a position where he needed no favors. Therefore, he devoted all his time to his scholarship.
At the same time, he was very thoughtful, even with his servants. His scribe, Muhammad ibn Abu Hatim, reports: “Al-Bukhari used to wake up very frequently at night. Every time, he would lit the lamp by flint, make some remarks on a certain Hadith, before going back to sleep. I said to him once, ‘Why do you not call me to attend to this task in stead of taking all this trouble yourself?’ He said: ‘You are a young man and you need your rest. I do not wish to disturb you.’”
As a man who devoted himself to the study of Hadith, Al-Bukhari was keenly aware of the sort of life a Muslim should lead, and he was keen to meet all requirements. He realized that all able-bodied Muslims should be ready to fight when necessary, as in the case when an enemy attacks Muslim land. Therefore, he kept himself in proper training all the time. His training involved marksmanship and speed on horseback. His scribe says: “Al-Bukhari used to go frequently for archery training. In my long and close association with him, I only saw him miss his target twice. When he went for speed training, he would never be beaten.”
With such a keen sense to lead a life in line with Islamic teachings a question arises about his grading of reporters of Hadith. We mentioned that one of his earliest books was one of biographical nature on Hadith reporters, grading those who were reliable and those who were not. In each category, there are several grades. Thus, in the unreliable grade we could have people who were good and religious, but their memory was suspect, or their recording was defective, and those who were liars and outright fabricators. There are other grades in between. So, when Al-Bukhari would classify someone in any of these low grades, would he be backbiting him? He himself gives the answer: “I have never backbitten anyone ever since I learnt that backbiting is forbidden.” He is also reported to have said: “No one could press a case against me on the Day of Judgment.”
How could he reconcile the need to classify people and steering away from accusing them of lying or fabrication? He resorted to two ways. The first was that he used very careful language when he had to describe anyone. The most he would say of any reporter was that ‘his Hadith is unreliable, or suspect, or defective.’ Alternatively, he would say of an unreliable reporter: “Scholars have abandoned the Hadiths he has reported; or they question his standing; or they have omitted his reporting, etc.” He also makes it clear that when he used such descriptions of anyone, then it is totally unacceptable to relate his Hadiths. The other way was to quote other scholars who had graded reporters. Thus, rather than saying that someone was a liar or a fabricator, Al-Bukhari would say: “This reporter was described as liar by —.” Thus, he would use what other scholars have said when he shared their view. In this way, he would only be reporting statements by others, without making an additional statement of his own, but it would be clear that he shares the same view.
Al-Bukhari is credited with being the author of the book universally recognized by Muslims as being the most authentic ever to be produced by a human being. This is his collection of authentic Hadiths known for short as the Sahih. However, we need to mention here how he conceived of the idea of producing such work which took him 16 years to complete.
Several reports mention two particular events. The first is that it was a suggestion by one of his teachers. Al-Bukhari reports: “We were at Ishaq ibn Rahaweih’s place when he said to us, ‘I wish you could compile a concise book outlining only what is authentic of the Prophet’s Sunnah.’ I warmed to his suggestion and intended to carry it out.”
Another report mentions that it was a suggestion by some of the scholars attending with him that made the suggestion. The two reports may be easily reconciled. It could have been that Ishaq ibn Rahaweih was the first to make the suggestion, as he was the recognized top scholar, and one of Al-Bukhari’s main teachers. His suggestion might have then been confirmed by several scholars who were present, as they all would value the availability of such a work.
Another report by Al-Bukhari himself speaks of a dream he saw. He says: “I saw the Prophet in my dream, as though I was standing close to him, holding a fan in my hand. I asked one person who was known to interpret dreams, and he said to me: ‘You are the one who fends lies off the Prophet.’ This was what caused me to produce the Sahih.
Whichever event was first, the two must have strengthened his resolve to produce a work devoted to the authentic Sunnah. He looked at available collections of Hadiths, compiled by highly reputable scholars, and he realized that most of them were not immune to include some suspect reports and Hadiths together with authentic ones. Hence, he was determined to devote himself to this great task as a collector and preserver of Prophetic tradition
Imam Abu Laith Luqman Ahmad