The Prophet Muhammad said in a famous hadeeth, narrated by ‘Imraan bin Husayn :
“Verily the best among you (to follow) is my generation (the Messenger Muhammad and his Companions , then those who follow, and then those who follow them…” (Saheeh Muslim, the Virtues of the Sahaabah, chapter 52 hadeeth no. 2535)
From this hadeeth we can understand the following; undoubtedly, the best people to understand Islaam, the Qur’aan, Sunnah, and Sharee’ah terminology etc., are those from the first generation in Islaam – the Messenger Muhammad and His Companions ). The Messenger Muhammad also praised those who follow this first generation, and then those who follow the followers of the first generation. In other words, the best generations in Islaam are:
a) The first generation – the Messenger Muhammad and his Companions
b) The second generation – those who followed the first generation (known as the Taabi’een)
c) The third generation (ended 240-260 AH) – those who followed the Taabi’een (known as Taabi’ ut-Taabi’een)
This is the order in which the Messenger Muhammad praised them; therefore, as his followers, we must also praise them in the same order.
It is very foolish for people nowadays to follow those who are not from the first generation in Islaam. Today, people follow the likes of Imaam Abu Haneefah or Imaam ash-Shaafi’ee instead of following the Messenger Muhammad and his Companions. If you say to them, “Abu Bakr said…” they say, “…yes, BUT Abu Haneefah said…” Thus, they override the saying of a Sahaabi, one who has been praised by Almighty Allah in the Qur’aan.
We do not deny that scholars such as Abu Haneefah, Imaam ash-Shaafi’ee, Ahmad bin Hanbal etc. were great ‘ulamaa and followers of Ahl us-Sunnah wal-Jamaa’ah – May Allaah be pleased with them all. Rather, the problem arises when people choose to follow them instead of the first generation, which is clearly contradicting what Allaah and His Messenger ordered us to do; and this is manifested in a person who says, for example, “I am Hanafi” or “I am Shaafi’ee”, which is clearly implying that they only follow the opinion of Imaam Abu Haneefah or Imaam ash-Shaafi’ee.
Therefore, it is vital for us to understand that our Islaamic standard is the first generation in Islaam; those who follow this generation are followers of Ahl us-Sunnah wal-Jamaa’ah, and hence are from the Saved Sect. And those who follow anyone other than the first generation, for example, “great scholars” such as the apostate Ibn Baaz or Ibn ‘Uthaymeen etc., have deviated from the straight path and from as-Salaf as-Saalih (the Pious Predecessors).
However, there is also a system of ranking, in terms of virtues, amongst the first generation. Imaam al-Haafiz adh-Dhahabi (a follower of Ahl us-Sunnah wal-Jamaa’ah and a student of Sheikh ul-Islaam Ibn Taymiyyah) said in his Kitaab ul-Kabaa’ir (The Book of Major Sins), in the chapter of The Seventieth Major Sin: Cursing any of the Companions of Allaah’s Messenger :
“The noble qualities and merits of the Companions are too numerous to be mentioned here. However, the scholars of the Sunnah agree that the noblest among the Companions are ten, and among the ten, four are ranked as highest. These are, in order of their rank: Abu Bakr, then ‘Umar bin al-Khattaab, then ‘Uthmaan bin ‘Affaan, and then ‘Ali bin Abee Taalib – May Allaah be pleased with them all. There is no doubt concerning this, and whoever doubts it is an innovator (mubtadi’) and a malicious hypocrite (munaafiq khabeeth).”
Hence, the scholars of Ahl us-Sunnah wal-Jamaa’ah unanimously agree that Abu Bakr as-Siddeeq was the greatest companion of Rasool-Ullaah , then ‘Umar, then ‘Uthmaan, and then ‘Ali (may Allaah be pleased with them all). This is how Allaah (SWT) has destined for it to be, and those who favour the Companions in any other order have gone astray from as-Salaf as-Saalih, such as the apostate Shee’ah Raafidah. Furthermore, the Messenger Muhammad said:
“Abu Bakr will be in Paradise, ‘Umar will be in Paradise, ‘Uthmaan will be in Paradise, ‘Ali will be in Paradise, Talhah will be in Paradise, az-Zubayr will be in Paradise, ‘Abdur-Rahmaan bin ‘Awf will be in Paradise, Sa’d bin Abee Waqqaas will be in Paradise, Sa’eed bin Zayd will be in Paradise and Abu ‘Ubaydah bin al-Jarraah will be in Paradise.” (Saheeh al-Jaami’ as-Sagheer, 1/70, no. 50)
The Companions named above were famously known as “Al-’Asharah fil-Jannah (the Ten in Paradise)”. They were the greatest Companions of Rasool-Ullaah and this is their order.
We can therefore come to the conclusion that the best Companions were (in order):
a) The Ten Promised Paradise
Abu Bakr as-Siddeeq
‘Umar bin al-Khattaab
‘Uthmaan bin ‘Affaan
‘Ali bin Abee Taalib
‘Abdur-Rahmaan bin ‘Awf
Sa’d bin Abee Waqqaas
Sa’eed bin Zayd
Abu ‘Ubaydah bin al-Jarraah
b) The People of Badr (those who participated in the Battle)
c) Those who made al-bay’atu tahtash-shajarah (the pledge beneath the tree)