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Opinion of Imam Ahmad on Superiority of Sahaba [Tafzeel]

Opinion of Imam Ahmad on this matter consist of two parts:

  1. The best among the companions was Abu Bakr, then Umar, then Uthman. This he based on narration of Abdullah b. Umar.
  2. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Misconception

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:

  1. The question was asked regarding tafdhil. And the answer Imam gave about Khilafa.
  2. 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?
  3. 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.
  4. 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)

Did Ibn Mas’ud consider ‘Ali to be the most superior companions?

Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal narrated in “Fazail as-Sahaba” (1033) through Muhammad b. Ja’far Ghundar who said: Shu’ba narrated to him from Abu Ishaq al-Sabee’i from ‘Abdur Rahman b. Yazeed from ‘Alqama b. Qais from ‘Abdullah b. Mas’ud who said:

كُنَّا نَتَحَدَّثُ أَنَّ أَفْضَلَ أَهْلِ الْمَدِينَةِ عَلِيُّ بْنُ أَبِي طَالِبٍ

“We used to talk that the best from the people of Madinah is ‘Ali.”

However, Ibn Battah narrates this same narration of Imam Ahmad with the exact same sanad with a different wording.

Ibn Battah narrates this in his “Al-Ibanah” (8/287-288) through Abu ‘Ali b. Sawwaf from ‘Abdullah b. Imam Ahmad through the same chain as in Fazail as-Sahaba but the wording is as below:

كنا نتحدث أن أقضى أهل المدينة علي بن أبي طالب

“We used to talk that the best Qadhi from the people of Madinah is ‘Ali b. Abi Talib.”

Ibn ‘Asakir reports in “Tarikh Dimashq” (42/404) through Muhammad b. ‘Uthman b. Abi Shayba from his father from Muhammad b. Jafar Ghudur similarly but with the text mentioning “Best Qadhi from people of Madina” not “best of people of Madina”.

So it seems the mistake here is not from Ghundar, the student of Imam Ahmad, or from Abdullah the son of Imam Ahmad rather apparently it is from a scribe who changed aqdha into afzal as both these words looks similar.

Second Example:

This word “afdhal” is also in Musnad al-Bazzar (1616) and from there it is quoted in Kashf al-Astar (2550) through Yahya b. Sakan from Shu’ba from Abu Ishaq from ‘Abdur Rahman b. Yazeed from ‘Alqama from Ibn Mas’ud.

However, Ibn Hajar in “al-Mutalib al-‘Aaliya” (16/75) and al-Buseeri in “Ithaf al-Khiyara al-Maharah” (7/189) quotes it, from Musnad al-Bazzar, with the word “Aqdha ahl al-Madeenah”.

Note that Yahya b. Sakan is a disputed narrator.

Another example:

Abu Ja’far al-Qatee’i narrates in his Ziyadat on Fazail As-Sahaba (1097) through ‘Abdullah b. Muhammad Abul Qasim al-Baghwi from his grandfather Ahmad b. Manee’ from Abu Qutn from Shu’ba b. Hajjaj similarly with the wording “the best of people of Madinah”.

This is also change in wording because of the following reasons:

  1. The Shaykh of al-Qatee’i, Abul Qasim al-Baghwi himself recorded this in his book “Mu’jam as-Sahaba” (4/361) with the same sanad and matan.
  2. Ahmad b. Manee’ the grandfather of Abul Qasim al-Baghwi recorded this in his Musnad, as quoted by Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani in al-Mutalib al-‘Aaliya (3924) and al-Buseeri Itthaf al-Mahira (6643), through Abu Qutn from Shu’ba.
  3. Ibn Sa’d also quote this narration in Tabaqat (2/258) through Abu Qutn the shaykh of Ahmad b. Manee’ with the correct wording “the best Judge among the people of Madina”’.

So it is clear that this also a mistake from a scribe or a narrator from later generation.

Others who have narrated this narration:

  1. Al-Hakim narrates in “al-Mustadrak” (4656) through Adam b. Abi Iyas from Shu’ba with wording that the best Judge from the people of Madina was ‘Ali.
  2. Ibn Sa’d narrates in “Tabaqat” (2/258) and al-Baladhuri in “Ansab al-Ashraf” (2/97) through Wahb b. Jareer from Shu’ba with the wording same as the previous one.
  3. Ibn ‘Abdul Barr narrates in “al-Istai’ab” (3/1103) with his sanad through Muslim b. Ibrahim from Shu’ba similarly.

Admission of Ibn Abd al-Barr:

Hafiz Ibn ‘Abdul Barr states in “al-Istidhkar” (5/109):

وَهَذَا عِنْدِي حيث فِيهِ تَصْحِيفٌ مِمَّنْ رَوَاهُ عَنْ شُعْبَةَ هَكَذَا وإنما المحفوظ فيه عن بن مَسْعُودٍ أَنَّهُ قَالَ كُنَّا نَتَحَدَّثُ أَنَّ أَمْضَى أَهْلِ الْمَدِينَةِ عَلِيُّ بْنُ أَبِي طَالِبٍ هَكَذَا مِنَ الْقَضَاءِ لَا مِنَ الْفَضْلِ

“In this narration there is manipulation (TasHeef) by those who narrated it from Shu’ba with this wording. The preserved wording through Ibn Mas’ud is that he said “We used to talk the best Qadhi from the people of Madinah is ‘Ali b. Abi Talib” in this way from Qadha not from Fadhl.”

Conclusion:

In summary we can say that this narration with the wording of Afdhaliyya comes in the following sources

  1. Yahya b. Sakan from Shu’ba as reported in Bazzar and quoted in different Zawaid compiled on Bazzar. So the printed  Musnad al-Bazzar has the word “Afdhal” along with the Kashf al-Astar and Majma’ az-Zawaid by al-Haythami, while al-Buseeri in Zawaid al-‘Asharah and Ibn Hajar in “al-Mutalib al-‘Aaliya” quote it from Musnad al-Bazzar with the phrase “Aqdha ahl al-Madinah.
  2. Muhammad b. Jafar Ghundur from Shu’ba as reported in Musnad Ahmed, al-Ibana of Ibn Battah and Tarikh Dimashq. So Fazail al-Sahaba has the word “Afdhal” while Ibanah of Ibn Battah and Tarikh Dimashq of Ibn ‘Asakir has the phrase “Aqdha ahl al-Madina”.
  3. Abu Ja’far al-Qatee’i included it in Zawaid on fazail al-Sahaba through Abul Qasim al-Baghwi from his grandfather from Abu Qutn with the phrase of Afdhaliyyah. But Abul Qasim al-Baghwi himself quotes in Mu’jam as-Sahaba, and from him Ibn ‘Asakir in tarikh dimashq, and also his grandfather himself included in his Musnad with the wording of Qadha not Fadl.

This is enough to prove that this is a mistake from some narrator or scribe.

Correct opinion of ‘Abdullah b. Mas’ud :

Another thing which makes this argument strong is that Ibn mas’ud would consider ‘Uthman b. ‘Affan to be superior than ‘Ali as narrated in numerous books of hadith. Hence, Ibn Abi Shaiba narrates in Musannaf (32032, 37076), Ahmad in “Fazail” (731), Al-Tabrani in “al-kabeer” (9/169), Al-Khallal in “As-Sunnah (543,544,558) through A’amash from ‘Abdullah b. Sinan from Abdullah b. Mas’ud that he said when he ‘Uthman selected as leader:

مَا أَلَوْنَا عَنْ أَعْلَانَا ذَا فُوقٍ

“We did not show leniency of an inch from (choosing) the best of us”

Ahmad also narrates “Fazail” (747), al-Tabrani in “Kabeer” (9/170), Abu Nu’aim in “al-Hilya” (7/244), al-Bayhaqi in “al-Madkhal ila al-Sunan” (75), al-Lalkai in “Sharh al-Usul” (2555), al-Aajurri in “Al-Shari’ah” (1213), al-Khallal in “as-Sunnah” (542) through Mis’ar from ‘Abdul Malik b. Maisira from Nazzaal b. Saburah that he heard from ‘Abdullah b. Mas’ud when ‘Uthman was selected as Caliph that he said:

أَمَّرْنَا خَيْرَ مَنْ بَقِيَ وَلَمْ نَأْلُ

“We selected the best of us over us and we did not show leniency.”

Imam Ahmad narrates in Fazail as-Sahaba (759), al-Tabrani in “al-Kabeer” (9/168-169) and others through ‘Aasim b. Abi Nujud from Abu Waa’il from Ibn Mas’ud that he said, when ‘Uthman was chosen as caliph:

أَمَّا بَعْدُ فَإِنَّ أَمِيرَ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ عُمَرَ بْنَ الْخَطَّابِ، مَاتَ، فَلَمْ نَرَ نَشِيجًا أَكْثَرَ مِنْ يَوْمَئِذٍ، وَإِنَّا اجْتَمَعْنَا أَصْحَابَ مُحَمَّدٍ وَلَمْ نَأْلُ عَنْ خَيْرِنَا ذَا فُوقٍ، فَبَايَعْنَاهُ فَبَايِعُوا أَمِيرَ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ عُثْمَانَ بْنَ عَفَّانَ

“Indeed Ameer al-Mumineen ‘Umar bin al-Khattab has died, so we did not know people crying on any day as on that day. We the companions of Muhammad (sallallahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) gathered and did not turned even an inch in choosing the best of us. So we gave the pledge of allegiance to Ameer al-Mumineen ‘Uthman…”

This was famous from ‘Abdullah b. Mas’ud so much so that Ahmad b. Hanbal took it as evidence to establish his view that ‘Uthman was superior to ‘Ali. See “Al-Sunnah” (527, 539, 563) by al-Khallal. And Allah knows best