Sahih Bukhari’s Original Copy?
Sharif Muhammad Jabir
Translated by Waqar Akbar Cheema
Translator’s Note: While I had considered translating this write-up ever since I read it on Al-Jazeera Blogthe immediate impetus has been a disastrous article by one Atabek Shukurov whose work “Hanafi Principles of Testing Hadith” I reviewed back in 2015. Although I plan to make a dedicated response to his present article this piece by Sharif Muhammad Jabir, I believe, serves as a principle response to his basic argument. Irony is that Mr. Shukurov himself cites works written hundreds of years ago using editions thereof published within last few decades. How bad he did not give us images from the first copies of the works of al-Bazdawi (d. 482/1089), al-Ghazali (d. 505/1111), al-‘Asqalani (d. 852/1448) et al. which could be considered authentic according to the criteria laid down by him.
Some of the ‘researchers’ and those known with the honorifics indicating their educational qualifications have framed an ‘important’ question regarding the absence of original manuscript copy of (Muhammad b. Isma’il) al-Bukhari’s (hereinafter Bukhari) Sahih that he penned down with his own hands. They ask, “If Bukhari did author this book why do we not find its original manuscript in his own handwriting?” They say; “The oldest extant copy of Sahih Bukhari goes back to the fourth century after Hijrah i.e. decades after the death of Bukhari (d. 256/870); it is the copy of Muhammad b. Ahmad al-Marwazi who was born in the year 301/913 and died in 371/982. He listened to the Sahih from his teacher al-Firabri (d. 320/932) in 318/930 who in turn listened to it from Bukhari in 252/866. How then can we trust a book attributed to its author without there being a manuscript written by him available to us?”
2. Naivety of the Question
It is regrettable that we live in an age in which such naïve and absurd questions prop up [in the guise of academics and research]. Who seeks the original manuscript copies of books in our day? Beginning with the Qur’an; we have absolute confidence in the preservation of Allah’s Book though we neither have with us a copy of Qur’an written in the presence of Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) nor even an original copy of ‘Uthman’s (d. 35/656) mushaf. In fact a very old copy of Qur’an discovered by the scholars in Germany went back only to the time of Harun al-Rashid (d. 193/809). Though they concluded that it confirmed to the Qur’an we have with us today, it did not add to our trust and conviction regarding the Book of Allah [in terms of preservation.] Even as we turn our attention to books of humans we find that it is the only the naïve who seek an original copy in the handwriting of the author as evidence for rightful attribution to him. How many a book of our day and those of days gone by have you read for which you did not find a copy of it in the handwriting of its author? In fact the availability of author’s handwritten manuscript of a book is no guarantee or reference point to establish the attribution of the book to its author. This has been the human practice for centuries. It has been so because the methods of attribution of the book to its author are related to continuous transmission of the book through multiple channels and not in the existence of the original handwritten copy of the author.
3. How has Sahih Bukhari been transmitted to us?
There is no doubt that Imam Bukhari did pen his work al-Sahih with his own hand, however, he [also] recited it to a large number of his students who listened to it from him and copied it in its entirety. Thereafter, they checked it against Bukhari’s personal copy. This way their copies were in accordance with the original one of Bukhari. Afterwards, came another generation who listened to the book from the students of Bukhari and compared their copies to those of Bukhari’s students, and likewise [it happened through subsequent generations] until the book became widely known. If, therefore, the original one written by Bukhari was lost it had no implications, because it had been transmitted among the generations of students of Bukhari and its copies had become widely published each with a chain of transmission back to Bukhari. Commentaries to it were written, and all the copies are, by the grace of Allah, in congruence. As to the minor differences in the wording, they are in a sense similar to the difference of recitals (qira’at) in Qur’an and are, in fact, a factor confirming the attribution for they establish numerous transmitted links that go back to Imam Bukhari.
Accordingly, even if the reliance is made on a copy much later than that of Bukhari it confirmed to the manuscripts and editions prior to it except for minor marginal differences. See, therefore, how the differences, rare and marginal, increase the authenticity of copying rather than question it. Moreover, whereas the transmission of al-Firabri – a student of Bukhari – became popular, and copies of it were published, it was not because copying was exclusively based on his transmission. Sahih Bukhari was copied through other transmissions as well. This is al-Khattabi (319/931 – 388/998) saying in his commentary to Sahih Bukhari titled ‘Alam al-Hadith that he listened to major part of the book from Khalf b. Muhammad al-Khayyam on the authority of Ibrahim b. Ma’qal al-Nasafi (d. 295/907), a student of Bukhari who listened to the book from him. It is a link other than that of al-Firabri. This is how it was with the early scholars. Among them the oral transmission and reporting of Sahih Bukhari through various links, other than the one popular today, was widespread. Their renderings of the Sahih are in line with the copy common today.
The internal consistence of the transmissions and copies of Sahih Bukhari despite remoteness of the regions, difference of times, and the number of links back to Imam Bukhari are best evidence for the mass narration of Sahih Bukhari and the reliability of its copied transmission. Thereafter, if one or more of the copies of it became popular among the scholars (as it happens with most of the academic works) it was not because it was the most authentic of the copies or because it included something that other copies did not rather this is simply how it naturally happens. It is similar to a situation wherein a contemporary author writes a book and multiple editions of it come out, however, decades later only one of the editions remains in print and the book becomes popular in that edition because it is the best or, let us say, the most critical of the editions whereas the other editions go out of print and are neglected. This does not mean that the subject matter of the in-vogue edition is different from other editions.
In short, Sahih Bukhari was relayed down from his author through mass transmission. It was not possible for any scribe to make any interpolation or alteration without it being known. Scholars of different schools of thought possessed copies of Sahih Bukhari and knew its content intimately. If any narration were interpolated it would have been known to them immediately through its variance with their own copies of it and their knowledge of narrators and the chains of narrators. Reflect, therefore, on this peculiar and crucial feature of our ummah’s intellectual tradition – the methodology of narration, scrutiny, and comparison of a later copy with the earlier one – the like of which is not found with other nations. This signifies that loss of Bukhari’s own copy makes no difference rather it goes with the natural order of things. It is indeed rare for a manuscript to outlive environmental, historical, military, and political changes and survive for over 1200 years!
4. Availability of the original copy is no greater proof of authenticity
If we assume that the multi-pronged methodology of preservation and transmission as historically in vogue in the intellectual tradition of the ummah had not existed and we had with us a handwritten copy of Sahih Bukhari attributed to Imam Bukhari, it would not have been a stronger proof of authenticity of Sahih Bukhari compared to what we have today! In fact it would be far weaker in terms of reliability. This is because then you would require proving the reliability of the attribution of the copy to Imam Bukhari and there would be no other way to do it. How doubtful then would have been the attribution of the Sahih to Imam Bukhari compared to all the ways of attestation that we now have with us? Therefore, the method of transmission that the scholars of this ummah have relied upon is the best possible way.
5. What if all the copies of Sahih Bukhari were lost?
If we were to gather all the thousands of copies of Sahih Bukhari, whether manuscripts or printed ones, and put them all to fire and likewise delete whatever of it is available on the internet including what is quoted in the commentaries and books of fiqh etc. If we were to delete them all leaving no trace of Bukhari’s work; even if this were indeed to happen we would not lose anything we know of the sunnah of the Prophet (ﷺ) today because whatever is narrated in hadith reports of Sahih Bukhari is available and published in other books of hadith and fiqh as well.
These are the facts that those who indulge in the superficial and sentimental speech asking as to where all these sayings of the Prophet (ﷺ) came up from are not aware of. Many great hadith scholars preceded Imam Bukhari whose multivolume tomes were sources of much of the Bukhari’s work. Some of these scholars were Bukhari’s teachers and some were the teachers of his teachers. If you were to carefully study the reports in Sahih Bukhari you would find them attested and narrated through the very chain of narrators with which they are found in books both prior and later to it. Among the books prior to it is Musnad of Bukhari’s teacher al-Humaidi (d. 219/834) which has reports that Bukhari included in his Sahih. Likewise there is Muwatta of Imam Malik (d. 179/795) most of whose reports with connected chains were narrated by Bukhari as well. And similarly there is Musannaf of Imam ‘Abdul Razzaq al-San’ani (d. 211/827) and Musnad of Ahmad b. Hanbal (d. 241/855) and others besides. The works of great hadith scholars who preceded Imam Bukhari greatly overlap with Sahih Bukhari. Moreover, if we take into account the works of the contemporaries of Imam Bukhari such as Imam Muslim (d. 261/875) and Ibn Khuzaima (d. 311/923) and those who came after him we would find the reports in Sahih Bukhari repeated and preserved in these works. Such works are not few rather there are scores of them. Therefore, even if all the copies of Sahih Bukhari – not just original one – were to disappear nothing from the authentic hadith reports would be lost. Our religion is not based only on the works of one individual or Sahih Bukhari alone though it certainly has a great stature due to its academic value and accordingly the scholars give it preference over other works. May Allah bless Imam Bukhari with great reward for his services to the ummah.
These important facts expose to us the weakness of this question raised concerning Sahih Bukhari as if it is the sole foundational source of Islam that any doubt concerning it would make most of the hadith reports appear dubious and render vain bulk of the information about the Sunnah of the Prophet (ﷺ). In doing this they refer to the saying, “The most correct book after the Book of Allah” assuming that this statement makes Sahih Bukhari an essential source of Islam to the effect that if it were lost with it would go a part of Islam itself. This is a misconception on their part. In reality this statement simply highlights an academic characteristic of the book for Bukhari was the first and foremost to compile a book of only authentic narrations. He ensured that all the hadith reports in his book were authentic with chains of narrators fulfilling rigorous conditions more stringent than those of other compilers of hadith. He kept it free from weak reports having issues such as disconnection in chains of narrators. He did not collect therein all the authentic reports nor is that there are no authentic reports outside Sahih Bukhari that if we were to doubt it we would lose information on a large number of sunnahs of the Prophet (ﷺ). Neither Bukhari claimed this nor would a student in his maiden hadith class say this. In fact any reasonable person who has skimmed through hadith works for even quarter of an hour would not say this.
As a starter it would suffice for the reader to get know of Muhammad Fu’ad ‘Abdul Baqi’s (d. 1388/1968) book Al-Lu’lu’ wa al-Marjan, Fima Ittafaqa ‘alaihi Ash-Shaikhan (wherein he collected hadith reported common between Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim) in order to find out that Imam Muslim also narrated 1906 of the reports of Sahih Bukhari. How about going through other hadith works as well? Indeed the reader would find the authentic hadith reports of Sahih Bukhari have been adequately published in other books as well. In fact one would find that most of them have been reported through different chains of reporters which only adds to their authenticity.
The gist of what we have mentioned above is that the naivety laden doubt, “Where is the original copy of Sahih Bukhari?” comes only from those who view things superficially, give in to shallow trends, and are ignorant of the Islamic intellectual heritage. I believe the spread of such doubts is a good proof of the shallowness of the modern trends and materialistic approach that has hit our Muslim community. Such superficial rationality cannot rescue us from the backwardness that has overcome our people. It is ironic for someone to clamor about with such a ridiculous questions and thinks of him as an ‘enlightened rationalist’ researching the intellectual tradition. Such an individual should first get over with his ignorance of hadith, its major works and sciences; actually he should return to basic lessons in principles of academic discourse and logical thinking before going about with such non sense.
 Haji Khalifa (d. 1067/1657), for instance, tells us about “Al-Nijāḥ fī Sharḥ Kitāb Akhbār al-Ṣiḥāḥ” by Najm al-Din Abu Hafs ‘Umar bin Muhammad al-Nasafi al-Hanafi (d. 537/1143):
ذكر في أوله أسانيده عن خمسين طريقاً إلى المصنف
In the beginning Al-Nasafi mentioned fifty chains of narrators back to the author [Al-Bukhari].
See, Khalifa, Haji, Kashf al-Zanun, (Beirut: Dar Ihya’ al-Turath al-‘Arabi, n.d.) Vol.1, 553 and Vol.2, 1929
 Al-Khattabi, Abu Suleman, ‘Alam al-Hadith, Edited by Muhammad b. Sa’d b. ‘Abdul Rahman Aal Saud (Makkah: Jami’a Umm al-Qura’, 1998) Vol.1, 106