The Legend of Al-Bukhari: A Problematic Framework


Al-Bukhari is arguably the most important hadith figure of Sunni Islam, yet what do people actually know about him or his book? Though there are many popular lectures on Al-Bukhari in both English and Arabic (and other languages presumably), much of the material is sensationalized information that has a basis, or just completely baseless material. Even the well-known stories which are considered authentic, what actual benefit do they have? Besides being anecdotes for the minbar, these stories serve no purpose and actually give very little information as to why Al-Bukhari was important, and what made him so significant an authority.

Someone may rightfully ask, “What’s the big deal? Is this really a problem? Why can we not simply leave people and their stories?” In my opinion, it is  big deal as it creates a naive narrative about the Sahih for many people. Naive narratives should never be spread for the sake of accuracy – a goal in itself – but also because once a person grows out of a naive narrative, they may go into the opposite extreme, a side effect of naive narratives. While there are plenty who will never grow out of their naive narratives, and hence the effects will not show, there are the others who will grow out of this narrative and decided that, since our admiration is built upon cute anecdotes, the Sahih is close to worthless. Ironically, in an effort to boost the status of Al-Bukhari and his Sahih, some may have inadvertently done the exact opposite: open the doors to criticizing Al-Bukhari for these stories that he may have little or nothing to do with.

Part of defending hadith, and as a result: Islam as a whole, is to change the narrative and replace it with a more mature and historically accurate one. Historical accuracy about Sahih Al-Bukhari and hadith does not hurt us, but actually aids us. In the end of the day, these stories are soft targets for Zaandiqah seeking to destabilize the sunnah, and people’s admiration of it. Hadith stands firmly established in truth and is not in need of embellished tales and half truths to support it.

In this article, I will mention two popular stories about Al-Bukhari along with my take on them and suggestions for improvement.

Al-Bukhari’s Istikhara

The first story is that of Al-Bukhari bathing and praying two rak’ah, seeking guidance on the inclusion of various hadith reports in his Sahih. The full story follows:

Abu Al-Haytham Al-Kushmayhini said: I heard Muhammad b. Yusuf Al-Farabri saying: Muhammad b. Isma’il Al-Bukhari said, “I haven’t placed a hadith the book “Al-Sahih” except that I bathed (ightasalt) before it, and prayed two rak’ah” (Taghliq Al-Ta’liq 5/421)

If the story was simply an anecdote to show that Al-Bukhari prayed a lot, there wouldn’t be much of an issue. The problem is that this story is brought up when talking about the authenticity of the Sahih, and the various criticisms it has faced. It seems that the implications of how this story is used is to suggest that Al-Bukhari received some sort of divine guidance in the compilation of his Sahih.

Skepticism of the usefulness of this story doesn’t need to stem from  lack of faith, or belittling Al-Bukhari’s personal piety and worship. Rather, an objective reading of the story proves it meaningless in this regard. For instance, one could simply object and say, “What if God didn’t respond to him?” A better way to look at it as a Sunni is to reverse the roles in a theoretical scenario where Al-Kulayni is said to have done the same when compiling Al-Kafi. Would we feel compelled then to trust it? I am sure the answer would be a resounding, “No!”

Instead of focusing on divine guidance in compiling his Sahih, why not focus on tangible, easy to digest facts that demonstrate the same point better? Let’s consider the following. The hadith reports that the Sahih of Al-Bukhari comprise of where in circulation before Al-Bukhari compiled his Sahih, after he compiled his Sahih and while he compiled his Sahih. The hadith critics before Al-Bukhari’s era and before he compiled his Sahih were critically analyzing that pool of hadith reports. Likewise, after his Sahih was compiled and while it was being compiled, the hadith critics were critically analyzing the same pool of hadith. To summarize this point, the pool of hadith that Sahih Al-Bukhari was made up of were critically analyzed in three stages and continue to be critically analyzed, and yet the number of legitimately criticized hadith reports in the Sahih are minuscule and insignificant in comparison to the rest of the Sahih. I believe this tells us more about Al-Bukhari’s competence in the field and the authenticity of his Sahih than any story of him praying while compiling it.

Al-Bukhari’s Test in Baghdad

Essentially, the hadithists of Baghdad wanted to test Al-Bukhari so they selected one hundred hadith reports, and switched the chains of transmission to each of these reports. Then, the pool of hundred tampered reports was divided equally among ten individuals. When Al-Bukhari attended, he was asked by the individuals about each and every hadith, to which he responded, “I don’t know it.” After they had finished, he turned to the first man, reminding him of the mistaken way he transmitted the hadith and then correcting it. He did this to each one of these individuals until he had went through all one hundred reports. In the end, “the people agreed on his memorization, and admitted to his virtues” (Tarikh Baghdad 2/340).

While some cling to the story and defend it in any way possible, I am convinced that at the very least it has been embellished a great deal, if not completely baseless. For one, the source of the story is Ibn ‘Adiy who says, “I heard several Mashayikh say that..” Besides the obvious problem that his informants are unnamed, and thus we cannot verify their honesty and reliability, or even if they could have witnessed the event, his wording leads me to believe that he didn’t hear it from his teachers or scholars, but some random sources. If this is the case, the story is closer to being Bukhari folklore than it is to an account of a historical event.

The in-authenticity of the story (reason enough to not mention it) isn’t the only problem. The way it is mentioned – as a proof of Al-Bukhari’s memorization ability –  serves only to further the memorization narrative, where the idea of memorizing hadith is romanticized and portrayed as the method by which they preserved and retained hadith.

While a time did exist when memorization was the preferred and primary method of retention, by Al-Bukhari’s era this was simply not the case. The nature of transmission during that era dictated the growing reliance upon written records. Yes, they did memorize and many had exceptional memory, but they also relied upon their written references as well.

A better point to emphasize on is the number of sources, especially written references that Al-Bukhari utilized in the compilation of his Sahih. Not only does it show how well read he was, but it does demonstrate his memory as well to an extent. If Al-Bukhari was not extremely well acquainted with what was in his books and written sources, he wouldn’t have been able to benefit from them. A library alone isn’t sufficient a resource to compile the Sahih!

These two stories are not the only two, nor are the criticisms and suggestions restricted to what I listed here. What is mentioned are examples so the reader can understand what is being referred to and may apply the same ideas to other famous stories. In conclusion, I hope that we can work towards promoting a more mature narrative on Sahih Al-Bukhari by focusing on what made Al-Bukhari stand out from his peers and the actual reasons for the superiority of his book.

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