Opinion of Imam Ahmad on this matter consist of two parts:
- The best among the companions was Abu Bakr, then Umar, then Uthman. This he based on narration of Abdullah b. Umar.
- Anyone making ‘Ali the fourth in this regard is also on Sunnah even though Imam Ahmad personally preferred the first opinion.
However some narrations suggest that he opined the last one at the end of life.
To establish this let me quote some of his statements on this:
Abu Bakr al-Khallal reported in “Al-Sunnah” (603):
أَمْلَى عَلَيَّ أَحْمَدُ بْنُ مُحَمَّدِ بْنِ عَبْدِ اللَّهِ بْنِ صَدَقَةَ قَالَ: سَمِعْتُ هَارُونَ بْنَ سُفْيَانَ، قَالَ: قُلْتُ لِأَحْمَدَ بْنِ حَنْبَلٍ: يَا أَبَا عَبْدِ اللَّهِ، مَا تَقُولُ فِيمَنْ قَالَ: أَبُو بَكْرٍ وَعُمَرُ وَعُثْمَانُ؟ قَالَ: فَقَالَ: «هَذَا قَوْلُ ابْنِ عُمَرَ، وَإِلَيْهِ نَذْهَبُ» ، قُلْتُ: مَنْ قَالَ: أَبُو بَكْرٍ وَعُمَرُ وَعُثْمَانُ وَعَلِيٌّ؟ قَالَ: صَاحِبُ سُنَّةٍ، قُلْتُ: فَمَنْ قَالَ: أَبُو بَكْرٍ وَعُمَرُ؟ قَالَ: قَدْ قَالَهُ سُفْيَانُ وَشُعْبَةُ وَمَالِكٌ، قُلْتُ: فَمَنْ قَالَ: أَبُو بَكْرٍ وَعُمَرُ وَعَلِيٌّ؟ فَقَالَ: «هَذَا الْآنَ شَدِيدٌ، هَذَا الْآنَ شَدِيدٌ»
Ahmed b. Muhammad b. Abdullah b. Sadaqah: He narrated from Harun b. Sufyan that he said: I asked Ahmed b. Hanbal: O Abu ‘Abdullah, what do you say about those who say: Abu Bakr, Umar and ‘Uthman? He said: “This is the view of Ibn ‘Umar and we prefer this.” I said: “Those who say: Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and ‘Ali?” He said: “He is from people of Sunnah.” I said: “Those who say Abu Bakr and Umar (and then remained silent)?” He replied: “Sufyan, Shu’bah and Malik held this view.” I said: “What about those who say Abu Bakr, Umar and ‘Ali?” He replied, “This is now serious, this is now serious.”
Abu Bakr al-Khallal says in “Al-Sunnah” (610): It is reported to me by Abdullah b. Ahmad b. Hanbal, Abu Bakr al-Marrudhi, Abdul Malik al-Maimooni, Harb b. Ismaeel al-Karmani, Abu dawud al-Sijistani, Ahmad b. Husain, Yusuf b. Musa, Muhammad b. Yahya, Muhammad b. Ahmad b. Wasil, Saleh b. ‘Ali al-Halabi, Yaqoob b. Yusuf al-Mutawwi’i, Muhammad b. Hasan b. Harun in wording similar in meaning that they all hear Ahmad b. Hanbal saying: “Abu Bakr, Umar and ‘Uthman in Tafdhil, and Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and ‘Ali in Khilafah.” Abdullah b. Ahmad said: This is based on Hadith of Safeena (about Khilafah) and statement of Ibn ‘Umar.
In this narration twelve people from the students of Imam Ahmad have narrated his views to Abu Bakr al-Khallal. Some of these reports are also found in different books which speak about the opinions of Imam Ahmad but this is not the time to collect them and this much is sufficient.
His view regarding those who do not prefer Abu Bakr and Umar over all other Sahaba:
Al-Khallal narrates in “As-Sunnah” (507):
“Saleh b. Ahmad narrated that he asked his father about those who do not prefer Abu Bakr and Umar over other companions? He said: Sunnah according to us regarding Tafdil is that which was said by Ibn ‘Umar, “We used to say while the Messenger of Allah (sallallahu alaihi wa sallam) was alive that (best of companions is) Abu Bakr and (then) Umar and (then) Uthman. Then we remained silent.”
The term Sunnah here is used as an opposite of Bid’ah.
Al-Khallal narrates in “As-Sunnah” (514):
أَخْبَرَنِي مُحَمَّدُ بْنُ الْحَسَنِ الدُّورِيُّ بِالْمَصِّيصَةِ إِمْلَاءً مِنْ كِتَابِهِ قَالَ: ثَنَا مُحَمَّدُ بْنُ عَوْفٍ الْحِمْصِيُّ قَالَ: سَمِعْتُ أَحْمَدَ بْنَ حَنْبَلٍ وَسُئِلَ عَنِ التَّفْضِيلِ، فَقَالَ: «مَنْ قَدَّمَ عَلِيًّا عَلَى أَبِي بَكْرٍ فَقَدْ طَعَنَ عَلَى رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ، وَمَنْ قَدَّمَهُ عَلَى عُمَرَ فَقَدْ طَعَنَ عَلَى رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ وَعَلَى أَبِي بَكْرٍ، وَمَنْ قَدَّمَهُ عَلَى عُثْمَانَ، فَقَدْ طَعَنَ عَلَى أَبِي بَكْرٍ وَعَلَى وَعُمَرَ، وَعَلَى أَهْلِ الشُّورَى، وَعَلَى الْمُهَاجِرِينَ وَالْأَنْصَارِ»
“Muhammad b. Hasan al-Duri narrates from Muhammad b. Awf al-Himsi that he was hearing while Ahmad b. Hanbal was asked regarding Tafdhil, so he replied, “Anyone who preferred ‘Ali over Abu Bakr then he has slandered on the Messenger of Allah (sallallahu ‘alaihi wa sallam), and anyone who preferred him over Umar then he has slandered the Messenger of Allah and Abu Bakr, and anyone who preferred him over Uthman has slandered the Messenger of Allah, Abu Bakr, Umar and the people of Shura and the Muhajirun and Ansar.”
This makes it clear that anyone who spreads doubts on superiority of Abu Bakr and Umar over other companions or believe against it is an innovator in view of Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal. Following narration of Hanbal b. Ishaq makes it more clear.
“Hanbal narrated that he heard Imam Ahmad saying: Anyone who thinks ‘Ali is superior than Abu Bakr is a bad person. We do not mix with him nor sit with him.” As-Sunnah (524)
“Mansur b Walid narrates from Jafar b Muhammad al-Nasai that he heard Abu Abdullah was asked regarding the person who preferred Ali over Abu Bakr and Umar may Allah have mercy on them. He said: what a bad view is this!” As-Sunnah (525)
His view on those who preferred ‘Ali over ‘Uthman:
There are two different views have been reported from Imam Ahmad regarding those who preferred ‘Ali over ‘Uthman which is against the mashhoor view of Ahlul-Sunnah.
- Those who prefer ‘Ali over ‘Uthman are innovator as they go against consensus. Saleh b. Ahmad, Hanbal b. Ishaq and others have narrated this from Imam Ahmad.
- He did not call them innovator but considered this opinion a wrong one.
Currently I cannot claim which of the two is the final view of Imam Ahmad and this is also beyond my discussion. My point here is that if considering Uthman superior than Ali may be an innovation then preferring ‘Ali over Shaykhain should be a bigger innovation as there was no dispute over it even among early shia.
Some people claim that Imam Ahmad considered ‘Ali superior than Abu Bakr and Umar. They quote a narration in support of this view from Manaqib al-Imam Ahmad (pg.219) of Ibn al-Jawzi. The narration is as follow:
أخبرنا محمد بن أبي منصور, قال: أخبرنا محمد بن علي بن ميمون قال: أخبرنا محمد بن علي بن عبد الرحمن, قال: حدثنا أبو إسحاق إبراهيم بن أحمد الطبري, قال: سمعت أبا الحسن أحمد بن القاسم بن الريان قال: سمعت عبد الله بن أحمد بن حنبل, يقول: حدث أبي بحديث سفينة فقلت: يا أبة, ما تقول في التفضيل؟ قال: في الخلافة أبو بكر وعمر وعثمان. فقلت: فعلي بن أبي طالب؟ قال: يا بني, علي بن أبي طالب من أهل بيتٍ لا يقاس بهم أحد.
Abul Hasan Ahmad b. Qasim b. Rayyan says I heard Abdullah b. Ahmad saying: My father narrated the hadith of Safeena so I said, “O father! What do you say on Tafdhil?” He said, “In Khilafa it is Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman.” I said, “And ‘Ali?” He replied, “O my son, ‘Ali is from Ahlul Bayt, no one is to be compared with them.”
This report is totally weird and unreliable for the following reason:
- The question was asked regarding tafdhil. And the answer Imam gave about Khilafa.
- Even the answer he gave is wrong because view of Imam Ahmad was very clear in considering Ali to be fourth in righteous caliphate. So how can he stop at ‘Uthman giving chance for someone to raise a question?
- The hadith of Safeena which Ahmad read was regarding caliphate. The question asked regarding Tafdhil and the answer Imam Ahmad gave was on caliphate. Interestingly even that answer conflict with his mass transmitted answer. This is the condition of this report.
- Even if ignore these issues then also the narration is not explicit on what some people are trying to dig out of it.
Lastly the narrator from Abdullah is weak. See Lisan al-Mizan (1/578)