A Gifted Ability to Memorize
From a young age, he displayed unique ability to understand complex issues of law. However, that was not all. Al-Bukhari was also bestowed by impeccable memory and would remember long and complex chains of narrations of ahadeeth. For a hadeeth to be considered authentic, a reliable chain of narrators is needed to connect that saying to Prophet Muhammad salAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam, Al-Bukhari excelled in this.
He was once asked, “When did you start seeking hadeeth knowledge?” He replied,
“I was inspired to memorize the hadeeth while I was in the kuttab [small school].”
He was asked, “How old were you at that time?” He answered, “10 years or less.” What are our children doing at the age of ten? Many of them do not even know the name of the four Caliphs of Islam or the ten promised Paradise [Ashra Mubashira]. We consider our ten year olds too young to study religion, perhaps because the parents themselves are too distant from Deen to pass on the love to their children.
By the age of 10, he had memorized books of Imam Waki’ (the teacher of Imam Sha’fi, Imam Maalik and Imam Ahmad) and ‘Abdullah ibn Mubarak. Reading these great scholars at an early influenced Imam Bukhari’s character. No other scholar wrote about az-Zuhd [asceticism] and ar-Riqaiq [heart softeners] than ‘Abdullah ibn Mubarak.
About memory Imam Shaf’i wrote the following lines of poetry:
I complained to Waki’ about my poor memory
“Give up your sins!” was his advice to me.
“For knowledge of Allah is light,
And the Light of Allah is not given to a sinner.”
Imam Shaf’i was a righteous person with an incredible memory; yet he held himself accountable. May Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala grant us such consciousness and self-accountability, aameen.
By the age of twelve, Imam Bukhari had memorized 7,000 ahadeeth with their chains and biography of the narrator without making any mistake. The perfect example of doing your work at the level of excellence!
Once, Imam Bukhari’s classmates censured him for not writing ahadeeth like them. He replied that he had memorized all the ahadeeth. They asked him to prove his claim and found him to be speaking the truth.
Imam Bukhari’s Teachers’ Remarks about Him
During one of their study circles, his teacher Imam al-Dakhili (a prominent hadeeth scholar in Bukhara) was narrating ahadeeth to his students, “Sufyan reported from Abu Zubair from Ibraheem…” Imam Bukhari interrupted and said, “Abu Zubair never narrated anything from Ibraheem.” His teacher inquired if Al-Bukhari was certain he was speaking the truth. The ten (or twelve) year old, Imam Bukhari replied, “My master! Go back to your original copy.” Imam al-Dakhili would make notes from his original hadeeth book and dictate to his class from memory. To verify that indeed he has made a mistake and a ten (or twelve) year old has corrected him, he made the entire class wait till he went home and checked with the original copy. Checking the original, he realized that indeed he had made a mistake. This incident, however, did not offend the teacher. He did not expel Al-Bukhari from his class. Rather, he was pleased that he had such a bright student in his class who could catch his mistakes. After this incident, Imam al-Dakhili would come to his class with ease because he knew if he ever made a mistake Al-Bukhari will point it out.
He complimented his student saying, “You are going to have a bright future in this Ummah.”
Lesson: This incident not only teaches us the brilliance of Imam Bukhari or the humility of his teacher but also how careful the scholars of the past used to be in delivering their lectures. They would fear narrating some false information even if done unintentionally.
A question to the teachers, parents and anyone who is an authoritative role: How often do you recognize the greatness of your subordinate and give them compliments? Not only do our students need to learn the etiquette of gaining knowledge but our teachers too need to learn the adaab of delivering knowledge.
Another famous story is of Sulaim ibn Mujahid. Sulaim ibn Mujahid said: I entered upon Muhammad ibn Salam Al-Baikandi (one of the greatest teachers of Bukhara) who was smiling. I supplicated for his happiness and inquired what made him smile. Al-Baikindi replied, ‘If you came a little while ago, you would have seen a young boy memorizing 70,000 ahadeeth.’ Sulaim asked where he could find the boy. Al-Baikandi replied that he might be outside as he had just left. Sulaim goes out searching for the boy until he met him. He said, “Are you the one who claims to have memorized 70,000 ahadeeth?” Al-Bukhari confidently says,
“Not only can I tell you all the 70,000 ahadeeth, I can also tell you when each narrator was born, when he died, where he was from and where he lived.”
Sulaim then tested Al-Bukhari with a couple of thousand ahadeeth and conceded this boy was special. Al-Bukhari was a nonpareil seeker of knowledge.
Imam Bukhari makes Pilgrimage to Makkah
By the age of 16, his mother had taken him to 1800 scholars that is all the scholars of Bukhara.
Lesson: Brother Omar Suleiman comments while many people aspire to travel abroad to study Deen, we should first take benefit from the local scholars. It is both a respect to the local scholars as well as because local scholars have knowledge of the circumstances in which we are being raised. Everyone should not dream of going to Bayyinah or Madina, go to your local Masjid first :) .
Having studied under all the scholars of Bukhara, Imam Bukhari then travels to Makkah for Hajj with his elder brother and mother.
Al-Bukhari’s Pursuit of Knowledge
It seemed as if he fell in love with Makkah. He requested his mother to let him stay in Makkah and take benefit from the local scholars there. His mother agreed and returned to Bukhara with her elder son leaving 16 year old Al-Bukhari behind. Notice that the mother never says: What about me? How will I live without you? She is a mother who supports her child in his righteous aspirations. It his mother’s commitment to Allah’s Deen that Imam Bukhari gained this status. May we become such mothers, aameen.
Bidding farewell to his mother and brother, Al-Bukhari spent the next few years in Al-Hijaz (it includes Makkah, Madina, Jeddah, Ta’if and everything in between). During his stay there he continued to collect ahadeeth from some of the leading hadeeth scholars of the world, memorizing the text of the ahadeeth [the matn], the chain of narrators [the isnad], and advancing his understanding of the reliability of those narrators.
He wrote his first two books next to the grave of the Prophet salAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam. These books were Qadhayas Sahabah wa Tabi’een (affairs relating to the Companions and Tabi’een) and Al-Tareekh ul Kabeer (history of all hadeeth narrators). He was 18 by this time. Look at his age and look at his accomplishments. SubhanAllah! May Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala allow us to raise such children, aameen. It was all because of his parents’ righteousness, asceticism, and devotion to Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala.
After spending six years in Hijaz, he traveled to Basra, Kufa, Baghdad and many other places including Egypt and Syria where he compiled his monumental hadeeth collection: Saheeh Al-Bukhari.
Due to his travels, his name became renowned. Imam Bukhari says that each time that he ran out of money, Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala would make a way for provisions for him. SubhanAllah, how Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala takes care of His friends! He never begged from people. He was an ascetic like his parents. He was not concerned with what people had or career ambitions. He had completely dedicated himself to the study and compilation of the words and actions of Rasoolullah salAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam.
Scholarly Praise for Imam Bukhari
- Imam Ahmad met Imam Bukhari when he was 18 years old, his comments were, “I have never met a man like Al-Bukhari from the Khurasan.” Had Imam Ahmad met him at a later age, he would have said much more in the praise of Imam Bukhari. Imam Ahmad once said to his students, “I never narrated a hadeeth to Al-Bukhari except that I saw him immediately implementing it.” He was not someone who would hear a hadeeth and say, “How awesome it is! Let me dictate it to others.” He would learn and immediately act on the hadeeth. His character resembles that of the Sahabah radhiAllahu ‘anhum who would hear the ayaat from the Prophet salAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam and not move on to memorize the next ayaat unless they had grasped the meaning of the previous ayaat. SubhanAllah! May Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala grant us such seriousness, aameen.
The key to retaining memorized text is by acting on it. We cannot remember the Qur’anic commandments and Prophetic traditions unless we live by them.
- Al-Hussain As-Samaqandi said, “Muhammad ibn Isma’eel is singled out with three characteristics in addition to his praise ones. He was a reserved man (spoke little), unconcerned about what people have and completely bent on seeking knowledge.”
- An-Najm ibn Al-Fudayl said, “I saw in a dream the Prophet salAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam was walking and Muhammad ibn Isma’eel was walking behind; wherever the Prophet salAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam would place his foot, Muhammad ibn Isma’eel would place his foot there.” This is a dream that many pious scholars of the past had also seen; this shows his special status with Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala.
- Na’eem ibn Hammad said, “Muhammad ibn Isma’eel is the Faqeeh [jurist] of this Ummah.” This is a rarity that one masters both fiqh [jurisprudence] and ahadeeth.
- Ibn Khuzaymah said, “I have never seen underneath the sky one who is more knowledgeable and memorizer of the hadeeth of the Messenger of Allah salAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam than Muhammad ibn Isma’eel.”
Imam Al-Bukhari’s Sayings
- I know nothing that people may need but is found in the Qur’an and Sunnah.
- I hope that when I meet Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala, He does not call me into account for backbiting anyone.
- I did not start teaching hadeeth until I became fully aware of the authentic and the inauthentic narrations, reviewed all the books of opinion and visited Basra five times or about that, and left no authentic hadeeth but I wrote it except what I deemed unauthentic.
- I never willed to start any speech that included the worldly life but I will start with praising and commending Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala.