Not many centuries ago, Muslims were the stewards of the world. They liberated men from the bonds of ignorance and the darkness of unbelief into the light of Islam. This historical achievement was the mark of a unique generation, that of Prophet Muhammad, sallallaahu ‘alaihi wa sallam, and his companions. The Prophet himself pointed to the companions as the best of all Muslim generations. (Bukhari, Muslim and Tirmidhi). Hence, believing that the companions’ generation is superior to any other is a tenet of faith, and following their example is the way to success in this life and in the hereafter.
If seeking and winning the pleasure of Allah is the ultimate goal of every Muslim, then these are the men and women to imitate. Allah praises their Faith (2:137), their knowledge (47:16), and their compassion towards each other (48:29), repeatedly testifying in His Glorious Book that “He was well pleased with them.” (48:18; 98:8)
Affirmations of their strong and noble character even came from some of their enemies. During one encounter, a Roman officer described them in these historic words: “They are horsemen by day and ascetics by night. They pay for what they eat in territories under their occupation. They are first to salute when they arrive at a place and are valiant fighters who just wipe out the enemy.” (Reported by Ibn Kathir and mentioned in A H A Nadwi’s Islam and the World).
Studying the lives of the Sahabah and exploring their virtues helps us understand this Deen in its correct context. By following the methodology with which they approached and implemented this Deen, we will have planted our feet on the straight path.
Our Beliefs Regarding the Sahabah
Sahabah or companions are the individuals who have met the following criteria:
* He/she has met the Prophet, sallallaahu ‘alaihi wa sallam, whether the meeting was a one-time encounter, like for Dhimam ibn Tha’labah, a relatively short companionship such as Uthman ibn Abil Aas, or a life long championship like Abu Bakr As-Siddiq, Umar ibn al-Khattab, Uthman and Ali (radhiallah ‘anhum).
* He/she met him while awake and fully aware, not in a dream, through a vision, or any unrealistic experience. Meeting here does not necessarily mean seeing. For Ibn Ummu Makthoom, a blind man from Quraysh, could not have seen the Prophet. Yet, he was indeed a great companion and the Mua’dhinn (caller to Salah) of the Prophet, sallallaahu ‘alaihi wa sallam.
* He/she was a Muslim when he/she met the Prophet, or believed in him later on during his lifetime.
* He/she met the Prophet after he started receiving the revelation. For there were people who met Muhammad, sallallaahu ‘alaihi wa sallam, before the revelation and, foreseeing that he would be sent as Messenger, believed in him. Yet, Muslim scholars, especially those of Hadith, do not consider them as Sahabah. This was the case of Jarjis ibn Abdulqays known as Bahirah the priest.
1. Believing that all the Sahabah are trustworthy
We believe that all the Sahabah were Udool. Though it may roughly be translated as trustworthy, the adjective Udool carries a much deeper meaning. Scholars define someone as being Adl if he is upright regarding his religion and his daily conduct, and is of a strong, firm and refined character. As a result, he not only avoids the major sins but also any small sins that might tarnish his credibility. Therefore, to believe that all the Sahabah were trustworthy (Udool), is to hold them free of evil vices. The mistakes that were committed by some of them – on some occasions – emanated from their human, fallible nature, and not from an evil, ill-intentioned soul. As a fundamental consequence of this noble character, the Sahabah were extremely loyal and faithful to their Deen. Hence, they could not lie about Allah or His Messenger and as such, all reports and testimonies that can traced to them are considered to be fully authentic and unconditionally reliable.
2. They were trustworthy, but not infallible
Believing that the Sahabah were trustworthy and free from any intentional lies and deception towards Islam does not by any means make them infallible. Allah has granted infallibility only to His Prophets and His Angels. However, whenever they wronged themselves, they were quick to repent to Allah. The following verse illustrates this fact: “Allah did indeed fulfil His promise to you when you, with His permission, were about to annihilate your enemy, until you flinched and fell to disputing after the order, and disobeyed it, after He brought you in sight (of the victory) which you like. Among you are some that desire the world and some that desire the Hereafter. Then did He divert you from your foes in order to test you. But He forgave you: For Allah is Full of Grace for the believers.” [3:152].
3. Believing that they were the best of the Muslim Ummah
The best generation, according to the Qur’an and the Sunnah, is that of the lifetime of the Prophet, sallallaahu ‘alaihi wa sallam. The following Hadith narrated by Abdullah ibn Massoud and collected by Bukhari is a powerful testimony from Allah’s Messenger that firmly establishes this tenet: “The best of my Ummah (ie, followers) are those living in my generation, then those who will follow them, and those who will follow the latter.”
4. Believing that some of them were better than others
As Muslims, we love the companions of the Prophet and do not reject any of them. Nor do we love some more than others. Yet, we do believe that some of the companions were better than others. Allah Most High says: “Not equal among you are those who spent (freely) and fought before the Victory (ie, the Conquest of Makkah) (with those who did so later). Those are higher in rank than those who spent (freely) and fought afterwards. But to all has Allah promised a goodly (reward). And Allah is well acquainted with all that you do.” [57:10].
We also hold that Abu Bakr, radhiallahu ‘anhu, was the most preferable person of the Muslim Ummah, after the Prophet, sallallaahu ‘alaihi wa sallam, and that he deserved to succeed the Prophet as the leader of the Muslims over the rest of the Sahabah. Then after him come, in this respect, Umar ibn Khattab, Uthman ibn Affan and Ali ibn Abi Talib. These are the four rightly guided caliphs. This belief, contradicted by many deviant groups, does not spring from a mere guess, but rather rests on many strong, authentic ahadith of the Prophet, sallallaahu ‘alaihi wa sallam. Abdullah Ibn Umar said: “At the time of the Prophet, sallallaahu ‘alaihi wa sallam, we used to compare the people as to who were the best. Consequently, we used to regard Abu Bakr as the best of all, then Umar ibn al-Khattab, then Uthman ibn Affan – may Allah be pleased with all of them. The Prophet, would then hear this (statement) and would not disapprove of it.” (Bukhari and Ahmad)
The Prophet, sallallaahu ‘alaihi wa sallam, also said: “Abu Bakr (will be) in Paradise, and Umar in Paradise, and Uthman in Paradise, and Ali in Paradise, and Talhah (Ibn Ubaydullah) in Paradise, and az-Zubayr (ibn al-Awwam) in Paradise, and Abdurrahman ibn Awf in Paradise, and Saad ibn Abi Waqqas in Paradise, and Sa’id ibn Zaid in Paradise, and Abu Ubaidah ibn al-Jarrah in Paradise.” (Authentic reported by At-Tirmidhi, Ahmad and others). We therefore recognise the six companions mentioned after Ali as the best people after the four caliphs.
After these six companions come in order of preference those who attended the Battle of Badr, then those who fought in Uhud, followed by those who gave the pledge of allegiance to the Prophet, sallallaahu ‘alaihi wa sallam, at the Hudaybiyah gathering, called Ar-Ridwan Pledge of allegiance.
One may argue that there are some ahadith that contradict this tenet, such as the hadith narrated by Adu Dawood and At-Tirmidhi in which the Prophet, sallallaahu ‘alaihi wa sallam, said to the Sahabah: “Days will come wherein the rewards of a (single) good-doer will equal the rewards of fifty (people).” The Sahabah asked, “(people) from them (ie, the contemporaries of the good-doer) or from us?” He replied, “From you, indeed.” Scholars have said, the expression “the rewards of a good-doer will equal the rewards of fifty (from amongst you)” does not actually mean “better than you”.
5. We do not dwell on their differences
As we said earlier, the Sahabah were not infallible. They would have differences, some of which were more serious than others, especially after the Prophet’s death. However, we believe that whatever options they had, or whatever arguments they held to, stemmed from their best judgment and was sincerely motivated. We therefore refrain from dwelling on these differences and ask Allah to forgive them and reward them for their endeavours. We should not criticise or revile them, because Allah’s Messenger, sallallaahu ‘alaihi wa sallam, left behind a serious warning for those who would venture onto this slippery road.
Abu Hurairah narrated: Allah’s Messenger said: “Do not revile any of my companions. By Him in Whose hand is my life, if one of you were to spend (in charity) a pile of gold as big as Mount Uhud, it would not amount to as much as one mudd (about 2/3 of a kilo) of one of them (spent in charity) nor even half a mudd.” (Muslim). We, who love them, should therefore hate those who despise them or talk of them disrespectfully.
The opinion of Muslim scholars regarding this matter is voiced by Sufyan ibn Uyuynah: “Whoever utters a single (bad) word about the companions of Allah’s Messenger, sallallaahu ‘alaihi wa sallam, he is a follower of evil desire (ie a deviant).” (reported by Abu Muhammad al-Hasan ibn Ali ibn Khalif al-Barbahari in his Sharh as-Sunnah)
One should note, however, that sincere and academic criticism of one whose intention is to show right from wrong is not only acceptable but also compulsory. However, only those scholars rooted in knowledge and righteous motivation should tackle this critical task.
6. Adhering to their methodology is a religious duty
Allah has praised the Sahabah, as well as those who follow in their footsteps and make the embracing of their methodology, understanding and practices a way to earn His pleasure. He says: “The vanguard (of Islam), the first of those who forsook (their homes) and of those who gave them aid, and (also) those who follow them in (all) good deeds, well-pleased is Allah with them.” [9:100].
On the other hand, He promises those who deviate from the Sahabah’s methodology and way a punishment and an evil ending. He says: “If anyone contends with the Messenger even after guidance has been plainly conveyed to him, and follows a path other than that of the believers, We shall leave him in the path he has chosen, and land him in Hell, what an evil refuge!” [4:115].
As believers in the unseen and the ultimate wisdom of Allah, we know that when He instructs us to follow the Sahabah’s belief, practices and understanding of the Deen, it is because it is what’s best for us. Let’s however, try to seek some of Allah’s wisdom behind this instruction. The Sahabah were in a better position to understand and interpret the different aspects of Islamic law because they knew Islam better than anyone else. They witnessed the revelation coming down, knew the circumstances in which the verses were revealed and, most importantly, learned their Deen from the Prophet, sallallaahu ‘alaihi wa sallam, himself. Hence, if we want to emulate the Sahabah, as Allah commanded, we should not only follow their practices, but also follow the way they understood those practices.
This methodology consists of principles they used in order to understand the commands of Allah and that of His Prophet, sallallaahu ‘alaihi wa sallam. One of these principles is called Tasleem (unequivocal acceptance). The Sahabah used to take the Qur’an and the Sunnah for guidance and would not let anything else take precedence over them. As long as Allah or His Messenger had delivered a verdict on a given matter, the companions would take it with no reservation, even if they could not perceive the logic or the wisdom behind it. Thus, they did not use their “intellect” to accept or reject the verdict. For them, whatever Allah dictates is logical, sound, wise, and suitable. The following story of Abu Bakr is a dazzling illustration of this principle.
When the Prophet, sallallaahu ‘alaihi wa sallam, was transported from the Masjid al-Haram (Sacred Mosque) in Makkah to al-Masjid al-Aqsaa (the Farthest Mosque) in Al-Quds (Jerusalem) in a night, he went out the next morning telling people about his night journey. Consequently, some of those who believed in him previously became apostates. They later went to Abu Bakr and said to him, “What is happening to your friend? He is claiming that he was taken on a journey to al-Masjid al-Aqsaa last night.” Abu Bakr inquired: “Did he really say that?” They answered, “yes”; upon which he faithfully testified, “If he actually said that, then he has spoken the truth.” They asked, (amazed), “You believe that he went to Al-Quds last night and came back before morning?” He answered, “Yes, for I have believed him for things which are far beyond this, I have believed him for the heavenly news (ie Revelation) he brings down morning or evening.” (Reported by Al-Bayhaqi and mentioned in Ibn Kathir’s Tafseer).
Believing in the trustworthiness of the Sahabah is indeed an integral part of our belief. More importantly, loving them, emulating them and embracing their methodology is our only way to properly understand this Deen and apply its dictates in a manner that is acceptable and pleasing to Allah.
Why Were the Sahabah the Best of this Ummah?
We have already discussed some of the qualities that made those great companions better than the rest of the Muslim Ummah. We have mentioned their unconditional commitment to Islam and their methodology in dealing with the commands of Allah and His Messenger, sallallaahu ‘alaihi wa sallam. We shall explore in this brief expose some of the devotional, spiritual, ethical and emotional aspects of their life that contributed to their strong, refined and unique personalities. The qualities exposed below, and those mentioned earlier present a comprehensive answer to our opening question: why were the Sahabah the best of our Ummah?
1. Their full familiarity with the Jahiliyah’s evil
Most of the Sahabah grew up amidst the pagan practices of Jahiliyah, in pre-Islamic Arabia. They were well acquainted with the evils and vices of their surrounding, well aware of its weaknesses. When the light of Islam entered Makkah, it further exposed the backwardness and barbarous abominations of pagan Arabia before their eyes. When they finally embraced Islam, all of what the pagan society stood for, all of what it had to offer became repugnant to them and despicable to their hearts. Consequently, they rushed to rid themselves of the yoke of the pagan society and embraced this long-awaited liberator, Islam. No doubt, the old, somber years of Jahiliyah helped them appreciate and firmly uphold Islam.
It was indeed an important element of their life that had a tremendous effect in moulding their Islamic character. This is what made Umar ibn Khattab say: “I am afraid, he who has been brought up in Islam and has no knowledge of Paganism, will disintegrate Islam itself.” (from A H Nadwi’s Islam and the World)
2. Their gratefulness to Allah for His favours upon them
The Sahabah were fully conscious of Allah’s favours upon them. After all, it is He who brought them from the darkness of Jahiliyah into the light of Islam. Thus, they were always in search of ways to thank Him. They also knew – through the teaching of their master – that thanks are not mere, light statements, rather, they had to translate their words into actions. To be grateful and thankful is to be an obedient servant of Allah. This would partially explain the common questions they posed to the Prophet, sallallaahu ‘alaihi wa sallam, as to which deeds were most preferred in Islam. Sufyan Ibn Abdullah said: “I said, ‘O Messenger of Allah, tell me something about Islam which I can ask of no one but you.” He said, ‘Say I believe in Allah, and thereafter be upright.’” (Muslim). Hence, the Sahabah’s thoughts were always occupied, first and foremost, with the best and most sincere way to draw nearer to Allah. They were constantly checking the motives behind their sayings and deeds as well as the correctness of their actions. This not only refined their character, but raised their consciousness of Allah – their Taqwah – to a higher level, making it hard, and in the case of high ranking Sahabah, impossible for future generations to match.
3. Their unconditional love for Allah and His Messenger
The companions’ love for their Lord and His Messenger, sallallaahu ‘alaihi wa sallam, surpassed all loyalty and love of family, tribe, and self. During the Battle of Uhud, as the news spread that the Prophet, sallallaahu ‘alaihi wa sallam, was injured, a woman whose brother, father and husband had been killed in the battle that very day forgot her sorrow and rushed to the battlefield shouting, “How is the Prophet?” People assured her that by the grace of Allah he was safe, but she refused to be comforted until she had actually seen him. She was taken to him. When she saw him, she said, “No calamity is a calamity if you are safe.” (Ibn Ishaq, cited in A H A Nadwi’s Islam and the World).
A concise description of this love was presented by one of their enemies: “I have been in courts of Caesar, Khusrau and Negus. I can swear that I have not seen any king held in greater respect by his subjects than Muhammad is by his Companions. By God, when he gives an order, they all rush to carry it out, when he performs the wudu, they nearly come to blows in the scramble for the water he has used for it; when he speaks, a hush overtakes them. So excessively do they revere him that they dare not raise their eyes in his presence to obtain a full view of him.” (Zaad-ul-Ma’ad, vol III p 125)
4. Their unsurpassed sacrifices for this Deen
The Sahabah’s devotion and sincerity to Allah was indeed unsurpassed. They sacrificed all their property, their homes, their families and even their lives with an unshaken determination. Khubaib, radhiallahu ‘anhu, when mounted on a scaffold by his persecutors, was asked, ‘Don’t you wish now that Muhammad were in your place?” He cried out, “I would not like to be released on the condition that he may be given even a pinprick.” (Ibn Kathir, vol IV, p 63). Similar stories of this unmatched sacrifice are faithfully recorded in books of hadith and history. During the long years of persecution and conflicts as well as in times of victory and peace, they demonstrated such sacrifice for the sake of Islam. Who better to testify of this sacrifice than Allah Himself? He the Most High says: “Among the believers are men who have been true to their covenant with Allah, of them, some have died and some (still) wait, but they have never changed (their determination) in the least.” [33.23]
5. Their strong unity and natural compassion
History will always bear witness to the unprecedented bonds of brotherhood that united the Sahabah. Allah described them beautifully as: “Strong against unbelievers, compassionate amongst themselves.” [48:29]. More remarkable is the full brotherhood established between the Muhajireen, those who forsook their homes and property and migrated to Madinah, and their helpers, the Ansar, the men and women of Madinah who not only welcomed, fed them and shared their property with them, but went so far as to give them preference over their own selves. One should remember, however, that their full brotherhood and mutual sacrifice was the result – after Allah’s blessing – of their strong faith on the one hand, and the oneness of their methodology on the other. In other words, had they had different beliefs, different ways, they would not have united. This is an important aspect of the Sahabah’s life to ponder over, especially for those who are calling today in vain for unity among the Muslims whose hearts are almost void of faith or whose ways are at variance.
6. Their staunch rebellion against any kind of innovation
The Sahabah never embraced an innovation, nor would they tolerate any addition to or omission from the Deen. For them, every innovation, whether pertaining to faith or to practices of worship, “small” or “big”, was considered grave and dangerous and thus needed to be rejected immediately. Their motto and inspiration was the hadith, “Whoever introduces into this affair of ours (ie, Islam) something which we have not commanded, it is to be rejected.” (Bukhari and Muslim). When a man sneezed in the presence of Ibn Umar, radhiallahu ‘anhuma, and said, Praise be to Allah and peace be upon the Messenger (ie, adding the salutation to the Prophet),” Ibn Umar – though known for his profound love to the Prophet, rebuked the man and told him: “The Prophet has only taught us to say Alhamdulillah’ (with no added salutation).” (At-Tirmidhi). Ibn Umar spelled out the stance of the Sahabah towards innovations when he said: “Every innovation is a misguidance even if people regard it to be something good.” (Ad-Daarimee).
These were some of the noble, matchless qualities of the companions of the Prophet, sallallaahu ‘alaihi wa sallam. Because of their love for Allah, His Prophet and this Deen, the light of Islam now shines all over the face of this earth. Through them we find the best examples of courage, honour and commitment. It is only by placing our footsteps in theirs, that we can execute the duties that Allah has placed on us. No one can doubt their excellence and superiority over the rest of the Ummah? We know that we can never be the best, but we should never stop trying not to be the worst. We ask Allah to grant us their understanding and make it easy for us to emulate them in all respects. (This article was written by Habib Buslah)
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