Imam Bukhari, rahimahullah, is now a well-known scholar because of his saheeh collection of ahadith. It took him years to finish. But, this was not the beginning of his fame; in fact, the Muslims and scholars saw, from an early time, his intellectual strength and capability; he achieved fame well before he completed his most famous book.
Now, let us breeze through some details about the early life of this great scholar.
A Mistake in the Chain: Age 11
Imam Bukhari began to sit in circles of knowledge early — as early as eleven years of age. To sit in these circles, you need to first memorize the Qur’an; so we know he memorized it quite early in his life.
In those early days of Islam, the society and culture was still very much based out of oral tradition — people would memorize and narrate more than they would write. At that time, for a teacher to appear with written notes would be an embarrassment; teachers always taught from memory.
As Imam Bukhari sat in class, the teacher made a mistake in the name of one narrator of the chain. Imam Bukhari pointed this out. His teacher, embarrassed, consulted his notes; and sure enough, found that he made a mistake in the name of the narrator.
Even from age 11, Imam Bukhari accumulated fame; not just as a parrot memorizer of information, but as an analytical mind. We see here that he thought critically about the chain of narration (which is how he found the mistake.)
Labayka Allahumma Labayk: Age 16
At age 16, Imam Bukhari’s mother took him and his older brother for Hajj. Upon his arrival in Mecca, Imam Bukhari loved the city — not just the ‘ibaadah, the rites of Hajj and umrah, but the knowledge.
The greatest centers of Islamic learning during his time included Mecca and Medina. Hajj is something you do once in a lifetime. The trip itself takes several months; you might never come again. Scholars normally stayed a minimum of five to six months, if not several years, before returning home. And scholars congregate from around the world, every year, to these two cities.
Halaqaat (teaching circles) of knowledge abounded everywhere, with scholars from Yemen, Tunisia, Egypt, etc. and all over the world, all exchanging and trading knowledge. It was normal to spend 4-5 years there before returning home.
So what does this mean for Imam Bukhari? As a student of knowledge, Mecca became one of the best places you can visit. You don’t have to travel to seek knowledge — scholars come to you, in Mecca and Medinah. The international scholarship mesmerized Imam Bukhari.
He begged his mother to allow him to stay, and seeing his excitement, she agreed; his older brother accompanied her home. (This is how we know he has an older brother — from this incident; he has no known other siblings.)
Also, Allah blessed Imam Bukhari’s mother with wealth; she could afford to not have her son work. This enabled him to study the deen full time; he only returned home at the end of his life.
His First Book: Age 18
At age 18 (the age we normally finish high school and start university), Imam Bukhari completed his first book, entitled “Qadaayah As-Sahaba” (rulings of the sahaba). Other books followed; by age 19, he wrote At-Tareekh Al-Kabeer, one of the most important books on the science of hadith until today; he completed all nine volumes by age 19.
At-Tareekh Al-Kabeer literally translates to “The Big History.” History, to Imam Bukhari, included the names of narrators of hadith. This nine volume compendium documents the names of every single narrator of hadith from the time of rasulullah (salallahu alayhi wa sallam) to Imam Bukhari’s time.
That’s a lot. And this is one of the most advanced sciences within the science of hadith, called “Ilm Al-Rijaal” (knowledge of men). In Medinah U, they study this topic in a full class. Imam Bukhari, at age 18-19, wrote a foundational book in his field; we still use that book as a reference today — even scholars in their sixties and seventies, use 18-year-old Bukhari’s book to figure out who narrators are.
Slowly but surely, his fame and aptitude spread. And no doubt, Allah blessed him with many blessings, including his aptitude in memorization; he had a very clear, strong, photographic memory — as we mentioned in the story of his test in Baghdad. He would read a page once, and memorize it, immediately.
That summarizes the early life of Imam Bukhari. He also travelled extensively during his early years; he sought knowledge in Mecca and Medinah, as well as Baghdad, Kufa, Egypt, and other major cities and major learning centres.
And that summarizes the early life of Imam Bukhari, rahimahullah.
Lessons from Imam Bukhari’s early life:
- Invest in youth development. Youth can change the world.
- Encourage youth to be creative and explore interesting ideas.
- Let youth develop in areas they find interesting and are passionate about.
- Be humble as a teacher; you are not above your students are not above rectifying you.
- As a teacher, allow students to speak with confidence, and express arguments that differ with yours
- Post your own gems and lessons in the comments!
- Collector’s Edition: Sahih al-Bukhari. By Yasir Qadhi. 2012.