Sahih al-Bukhari

By Dr. Mohammad Akram Nadwi

My hope for this two-day course is that, at the end of it, you will understand why the Sahih of Imam al-Bukhari has for over 1200 years held its reputation as the most reliable resource for those who want to know how the Qur’an is to be understood and lived. That is, this Sahih is the most reliable record of how God’s Messenger, salla-llahu `alayhiwasallam, understood and explained and put into practice every aspect of the mission entrusted to him. We all know that Imam al-Bukhari lived his whole life as an Islamic scholar of the utmost piety and the utmost professionalism. He never compromised his standards for judging a report about the Prophet as sahih, or less than that, or the opposite of that. He never relaxed his vigilance and concern for how a report might be understood and applied to shape the rules and norms of Muslim life. These are matters wellknown and accepted by near universal consensus among Sunni Muslims. What is not wellknown is the how and why this is so. Muslims generally do not have a clear, concrete grasp of how he went about the task of recording, compiling and arranging, out of a huge mass of available material, those hadiths that were definitely sahih and of which the umma had need. That, in sha’a Allah, is what I shall be trying to do in this course. I shall cover two broad areas:

  1. Bukhari’s criteria for selection of the most sound hadiths– the criteria that he applied when choosing to include a hadith or exclude it, and when placing the hadiths in the final arrangement of his compilation. His consistency in the application of his criteria. How some people, including scholars in modern times, misunderstood his methods. The good and the bad among critiques of Bukhari’s work.
  2. Bukhari’s understanding of the meanings of the hadith and deriving sunnahs and legal rulings from the hadith. During the `Abbasid period, fiqh shaped the way hadiths were classified and ordered: Bukhariwas able to rise above the preoccupations and preferences of the jurists and understood the hadith in a much broader and deeper way than either they did or contemporary scholars specialized in hadith disciplines.

Here, in these notes, I want to give you a little taste, a sip or two, from the ocean of Bukhari’s profound knowledge and judgement about Prophetic hadiths. As I said, he combined the utmost professionalism with the utmost piety. What that combining means is that he never lost sight of the purpose of what he was doing; he did not put rules and procedures ahead of the goal the rules and procedures were designed to serve. To understand this, imagine a nurse in a hospital who has to serve lunch to an elderly patient. The nurse brings the lunch and places it on the table and wheels the table over to the patient. A little while later the nurse comes back and, seeing the food untouched, says “Not hungry, dear? Never mind. Perhaps you’ll want to eat by tea-time”, and then takes the food away. The nurse has not taken the trouble to find out if this patient is able to feed himself, perhaps is even too ill to explain his need. That is an example of following a procedure without caring about the purpose for it. When Imam al-Bukhari applied his criteria for judging the soundness of reports, he did so forevery single report individually, and looked into every aspect of the relevant information that might not be covered by merely mechanical application of the criteria. He took responsibility and used his judgement, informed as that judgement was by his vast knowledge of hadiths and their narrators and the relationships within and across the overlapping chains of narrators. Here are a couple of examples:

  • When it comes to the hadiths of the famous teachers of hadith, Bukhari accepts their hadiths only through those students who had accompanied them for a long time and were known to be accurate of memory and with good understanding of what they memorized. For the hadiths of al-Zuhri he usually depends on Malik, Ibn Uyaynah, Ma’mar, Shu’ayb, Yunus and ‘Uqayl. But Bukhari accepts hardly any hadith of al-Zuhri from al-Layth, because he knows that al-Layth did not accompany al-Zuhri over a long period.
  • Bukhari’s thorough research about hadith narrators included knowing and understanding which hadiths they had preserved well. He accepts from them only those hadiths and not the rest. For example, Ma<code>mar is an imam, and he narrates many hadiths from A’mash who was one of the six pillars of hadith. However, because Ma’mar did not preserve the hadiths of A’mash so well, Bukhari does not record any hadith with this isnad. Yet, we find, in our time, people like Sh. Ahmad Muhammad Shakir, Sh. Nasir al-Din al-Albani and others not only accept the hadiths of Ma’mar from A’mash but also classify them as “sahih on the condition of Bukhari”. No doubt Ma’mar and A’mash are both among the principal narrators in Sahihal-Bukhari, but this particular link, Ma’mar from A’mash, didnot satisfy Bukhari’s conditions.
  • There are some frequently occurring isnads in Sahih al-Bukhari, for example: al-A’mash –> Abu Salih –> Abu Hurayrah. It is said that A’mash heard one thousand hadiths from Abu Salih. Even so, Bukhari does not narrate all the hadiths with this isnad because, in some of them, he is not convinced that A`mash got them directly from Abu Salih: he has reasons to think that that there must be a missing link which is not known. Yet, again, we find many contemporary scholars, when they see a hadith with this isnad thatBukhari has excluded from his Sahih, rushing to classify it as “sahih on the condition of Bukhari”.

The science of hadith is highly sophisticated, with general rules and sub-rules of procedure, and rules for when one rule is applied in preference to another. It requires extensive command of all the relevant information, then responsible reflection before judgement in each case individually. That is the degree of excellence that Imam Bukhari achieved in the work he did that has come down to us as his Sahih. I hope that those who attend this course will leave with some appreciation of how and why this Sahih holds its reputation as, after the Qur’an itself, the Muslims’ most reliable book.