Imam Bukhari, rahimahullah, was tested a few times in his life. One of the early tests, which really showcases the powerful memory that Allah blessed him with, occurred as follows.
While in his twenties, imam Bukhari’s fame spread over much of the Muslim world — something rare in the time before internet, before email, before YouTube, our modern era where news travels almost instantenously.
As he arrived in Baghdad, word of his arrival spread, and the scholars of Baghdad devised a test for imam Bukhari — to prove to the world that he’s not that good.
During that time, to learn ahadith, you travel to the scholars of ahadith, sit in their halaqaat, and listen. They dictate ahadith to you. If a scholar comes from far, he brings exotic ahadith that nobody heard before; all the students (and other scholars) benefit from learning it from him.
Also, as a student of knowledge, someone who studies ahadith for a while, you quickly learn the “usual” or common ahadith that go around; such as the first hadith in Bukhari, that actions are by intentions.
Instead of exotic ahadith, the ten scholars each decide to narrate ten common ahadith each — but with a twist. Instead of narrating the hadith normally, with the chain, they would swap chains of authentic ahadith.
This is a very delicate point of the science. Most of the introduction to the science of hadith deals with features that weaken a hadith, and most of those features have to do with narrators in the chain. In this case, they took 100 authentic ahadith, each with an authentic chain, and transplanted the chain to a different hadith.
On the surface, it appears that they’re honouring imam Bukhari, by inviting him to their circles to learn and teach. But really, they had a more sinsiter motive.
Imam Bukhari arrives. The first scholar steps up and narrates his first hadith with a different chain. Imam Bukhari says, “Maa 3indiy,” (“I don’t have it” or “I don’t know it”). And again for the second hadith. And the third. And all ten.
The students start wondering. Imam Bukhari doesn’t know these basic ahadith?
The second scholar steps up, and the same scene repeats. And the third, and fourth, all the way to the tenth.
At this point, the students are very confused. These are all simple, straight-forward (appearing) ahadith.
Imam Bukhari figured it out. So his turn to speak arrives. He tells the first scholar: “you narrated the first hadith with chain this-and-that. The correct chain is this.” And he corrects the first hadith. And the second. And the tenth; all the way to the last of the 100.
And everyone in the masjid of Baghdad, the key center of learning of ‘ilm at that time, sees this occur in front of them.
Ibn Hajar (rahimahullah) comments: “It’s not surprising that Imam Bukhari saw through their chain-swapping, for he is a master; nor is him knowing the correct isnad that surprising, because he’s memorized these hadith in the past.
“But what’s really interesting is that he memorized the 100 ahadith, with chains, the first time he heard them, and narrated them back in the same order.”
It’s very clear that Allah blessed him with a photographic memory.
And thus, imam Bukhari’s popularity and reputation only grew, and he soared through the first test.
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- Collector’s Edition: Sahih al-Bukhari. By Yasir Qadhi. 2012.