Muhammad ibn Ismail al Bukhari was born in Bukhara. Bukhari’s grandfather Mughira was the first in his family to have converted to Islam from Zoroastrianism. Bukhari’s father was a traditionist, but he died when Bukhari was just an infant. After his father’s death, Bukhari’s mother brought him to Makkah from Bukhara.
Bukhari, although physically weak, had been endowed by God with great intelligence and a sharp, retentive memory. He was very fond of acquiring knowledge. Being a very devout and religious person, he began to study the hadith at the early age of eleven. He had very soon gathered all the traditions available in Hijaz. Then he undertook journeys for the collection of hadith. He continued to travel for about forty years throughout the Muslim world in the pursuit of knowledge. He went to all the traditionists to gather traditions from them. After having gathered a large number of them, he returned to Nishapur. By this time his fame as a traditionist had spread far and wide. He was therefore given a grand reception by the local residents. Imam Bukhari began teaching the traditions to the people. He wanted to settle down here. But he could not do so, as he had incurred the displeasure of the governor, over the question of his coming to his palace to give lessons to his sons. Imam Bukhari had refused to do so, for he considered this a degradation of hadith knowledge. Then the governor told Imam Bukhari that his children could go to him, but only if there were no other students present at that time. But Imam Bukhari did not accept even this condition. This enraged the governor, so he gave orders for his extradition from the city. Then Imam Bukhari went to Khartank, a village at Samarkand. He settled there and died in the year 256 A.H.
Throughout his life Imam Bukhari was strictly pious, honest and generous to the poor and to students. He did not bear any ill-will towards anybody, not even his enemies.
His entire life and all of his wealth were devoted to the collection of hadith. The greater part of his life was spent in travelling for this purpose. Bukhari began writing very early, compiling his first book at the age of 18, when he was in Madinah. Afterwards he wrote a number of books. But the most famous and important of all of his books is Sahih Bukhari. It is considered by almost all the traditionists to be the most authentic book in hadith literature. The author himself read it out to 90,000 students. It made his name immortal.
Imam Bukhari devoted the greatest care and attention to this great work. He is said to have been inspired to compile the Sahih after hearing a remark made by his teacher, Ishaq ibn Rahwayh (782-852) that he wished that some of the traditionists would compile short but comprehensive books containing only genuine traditions. Al-Bukhari thereupon resolved to work at this great task, and indeed, he devoted his entire life to it. He explored all the traditions known to him and selected only those which were entirely authentic. He collected 600,000 traditions from 1000 shaikhs over a period of sixteen years of hard work. From this collection he selected only 7275 traditions.
The sincerity of his endeavours was underscored by his practice of invariably performing ablutions and saying a two rakah prayer before recording tradition. The selection was done with great care, each tradition being subjected to the closest scrutiny. He accepted a tradition only when he was fully satisfied that all the narrators were completely reliable. He also made it a point to see that all these reporters had met one another. That is, there was proof that one narrator had heard the hadith from another narrator.
Another feature of his collection is that his chapters are arranged according to their subject matter under separate headings. These headings are mostly taken from some verse from the Quran. Sometimes he finds the wording of his heading in the traditions themselves.
As we have seen, the main purpose of Bukhari’s quest was to collect only genuine traditions. That is, he wanted to collect only those traditions, which were handed down to him on the authority of reliable companions, who were unanimously accepted to be honest and trustworthy. His next most important task was to be certain that these narrators possessed retentive memories. The third point he had to ensure was that the accounts they gave did not contradict those of other reliable narrators.
He classified these traditions according to subject matter, such as prayer, pilgrimage, jihad, etc., dividing his work into more than 100 books, which were again subdivided into 3450 chapters. Every chapter has a heading. This heading provides the key to the contents of the traditions in that chapter. This has made his Sahih very easy to consult, even for beginners.
Because of all these positive features, the Sahih Al Bukhari has been rightly considered to be an authority next only to the Quran. Many commentaries have appeared, in which every aspect of the book has been thoroughly discussed.
“His collection,” writes Philip K. Hitti, in his book History of the Arabs “has acquired a quasi-sacred character. An oath taken on it is valid, as if taken on the Quran itself. Next to the Quran this is the book that has exerted the greatest influence over the Muslim mind.”