The prophetic knowledge and practice have mainly reached the ummah through the Companions (rta), so they acquire a marked priority over the rest of the ummah. It is only the Prophet's (sws) Companions (rta) through whom the rest of the people of the world have acquired the entire corupus of the religion of God. Their status and privilege is not shared by anyone coming after them. They alone are the enchanting flowers of the ummah. The Qur'ān itself awards them with such a high station. In fact, the importance the muḥaddithūn attached to them cannot be debated over even in the absence of the textual proofs of the fact.
5.1 Testimony of the Qur'ān
God Almighty says that the Companions (rta) are the advance party of the ummah and the witnesses to God in this world:
And similarly we have made you a middle nation so that you may be witnesses over the people and the Messenger becomes a witness over you. (Q 2:143)
This verse throws light on two important facts. First, God has put the responsibility of communicating and disseminating His religion on the Prophet (sws). He decreed that the Companions (rta) are responsible for this task after the death of the Prophet (sws). This was their clear and concrete responsibility. It was not an optional religious act they could perform or leave aside on choice. Second, the high status and superiority the Companions (rta) enjoy within the ummah owes itself to the fact that they are shu'adā' lillāhi 'alannās fī al-arḍ (God's witnesses over the people on this earth). It means that they inherited the prophetic knowledge and practice and stood witnesses to it before the world.
5.2 Testimony of Aḥādīth
The status of the Companions (rta), in the sight of the Prophet (sws), has been preserved in the ḥadīth literature. It is clearly mentioned in many prophetic traditions. I quote the following narrative from al-Kifāyah fī 'ilm al riwāyah. Ibn 'Abbās (rta) reports that the Prophet (sws) said:
Whatever has been given to you in the Book of God is obligatory for you. There is no valid excuse for anyone to abandon the Qur'ānic edicts. If the issue facing you is not dealt with in the Book of God, then you have to follow my practice. If you find that there is no such practice of mine to guide you then you should follow what my Companions tell you for my Companions are like stars in the sky; whoever of them you take as a guide, you shall be rightly guided.
This shows that the Companions (rta) are the people who have transmitted the Sunnah of the Prophet (sws) to the world and they themselves are the beacon of light. They are the medium through which the knowledge and practice of the Prophet (sws) has been handed down to the rest of the world. The basis of their exalted status, as the Prophet (sws) pointed out, is that they are the source of guidance for the world.
5.3 Muḥaddithūn's Viewpoint
In view of this extraordinary importance of the Companions (rta), the muḥaddithūn decided that the principles of character and cognitive analysis of the narrators will not be applied to them. In this regard, the muḥaddithūn adopted the guiding principle that all the Companions (rta), without any exception, are reliable. They are above customary analysis in this regard. While deciding whether a narrative ascribed to the Prophet (sws) is reliable and acceptable, an expert has to scrutinize the characters of all narrators in its chain of transmission. Their good and bad have to be vigorously analyzed. It is only after a thorough investigation that a narrative they report is accepted or rejected. Contrarily, the Companions (rta) shall not be subjected to such an investigation.
Once this principle applied to the practice of the transmission of the prophetic aḥādīth is accepted, it leads to the question of the definition of a ṣaḥābī (Companion of the Prophet). Who is a ṣaḥābī? Would a person who has merely seen the Prophet (sws) and has not enjoyed his company for a considerable time merit to be called a ṣaḥābī? Would such a person be exempted from the principles of jarḥ wa ta'dīl (the act of affirming or disaffirming the narrators as reliable transmitters)? Would he be considered a beacon of guidance? The muḥaddithūn have, quite naturally, differed over this issue and three distinct groups of them emerged:
5.3.1 The First Group
The view of the first group as represented by 'Abd Allāh b. 'Umar (rta) follows:
I have observed that scholars hold that every adult Muslim who met the Prophet (sws), even for a moment, while he understood the religion and found it pleasing can be called a ṣaḥābī. However, I believe that the Companions (rta) can be divided into different categories according to taqaddum fī al-islām.
By taqaddum fī al-islām, 'Abd Allāh b. 'Umar (rta) means that all the Companions (rta) are not equal; they are of different religious status and should be put in different categories. Some are of a very high religious status others are in the middle whilst some others hold a low status.
5.3.2 The Second Group
The view of the second group of the scholars in this regard has been represented by Sa'īd b. al-Musayyab as follows:
We do not consider someone a ṣaḥābī (Companion) unless he has remained in the company of the Prophet (sws) for a year or two and has fought with him a couple of ghazwahs.
5.3.3 The Third Group
Khaṭīb has recorded the opinion of another scholar. His view represents the third group in this regard. This view, by its nature, criticizes the previous views and points out the true picture of the matter. This view follows:
The lexicographers unanimously hold that the word ṣaḥābī is a derivation of the root Ṣ Ḥ B. The meaning of the word does not hinge upon the duration of the company. It can equally be applied to company of a very short as well as a long duration. As for the lexicon, the word applies to any such person as blessed with the company of the Prophet (sws), no matter how long. However, it is a known reality that it is customary among the Muslims to refer to a person as a ṣaḥābī who has been in the company of the Prophet (sws) for a long time and has been meeting him continuously. Customarily, this word is not used for someone who had a short meeting with the Prophet (sws), or walked along with him a few steps or heard him say something. This entails that we restrict the application of the word to those only who can appropriately be called ṣaḥābī. Still, however, the aḥādīth transmitted by reliable and trustworthy individuals (among the first generation) shall be accepted even though the narrator has not been blessed with a longer company of the Prophet (sws) and has heard him only once.
The first part of the assertion is quite weak. The scholar holds that the duration of the company has no bearing on the meaning of the word ṣaḥābī whatsoever. We know that if somebody accidently happens to confront someone, neither of them is called a companion of the other. Similarly, it is not applied to a person who walks a few steps with us. The word, by its nature, implies company of a longer duration. However, the second part of the statement is very strong. It proves that the great scholars of the past considered the duration of the company of a man before declaring him a ṣaḥābī of the Propeht (sws). Besides, he must have rendered services in the cause of the religion. If we consider this fact in our definition of the term ṣaḥābī we come to know that the decision of the muḥaddithūn regarding the exemption of the Companions (rta) from jarḥ wa ta'dīl is justified.
5.4 Ṣaḥābiyyah According to the Qur'ān
We have learnt that the muḥaddithūn would not subject the Companions (rta) to jarḥ wa ta'dīl. They invoked certain Qur'ānic verses which praise the Companions (rta) of the Prophet (sws). Such verses refer to and praise only those individuals who embraced the religion first of all and stood with the Prophet (sws) in good and bad times. They spent their wealth in the cause of the religion of God and fought the enemies of God in the holy wars bravely. These verses do not refer to those who happened to have seen the Prophet (sws) accidently. While exposing the evil of the hypocrites from among the Bedouin people, the Qur'ān has clearly stated that they had not enjoyed the company of the Prophet (sws) in spite of the fact that they had seen him and vehemently professed belief in him.
An inductive survey of the Qur'ānic verses dealing with the Companions (rta) and their virtues is imperative in this study. We have to ascertain whether the Almighty gives any importance to merely and accidentally seeing the Prophet (sws). We have to see whether it is their long company, help and support that raises their status over the rest of the ummah. It may be their endeavours to seek knowledge and get training from the Prophet (sws) that holds the primary importance in this regard. In the foregoing pages I have referred to a verse from Sūrah al-Baqarah (Q 2). It can prove to be a decisive verdict in this regard. The verse tells us that the real significance, the Companions (rta) draw, is grounded in that they received and transmitted the knowledge and practice of the Prophet (sws); they obtained, taught and preached it. This, however, is not possible without relatively long company, full commitment and sincere devotion.
Another relevant verse discusses the devoted Companions (rta) who pledged to give their lives at the prophetic call to jihād, even though they were hundreds of miles away from their homes, were not properly armed and were direly exposed to the enemy.
God became pleased with the believers when they were pledging allegiance to you under the tree. God knew the state of their hearts. And God sent down on their hearts tranquillity and He decreed for them a victory in the near future. (Q 48:18)
This theme has again been repeated in Sūrah al-Tawbah (Q 9) in the following words:
Those of the Emigrants and the Helpers who have outreached others and have embraced Islam first of all and the ones who have beautifully followed their example, God is pleased with them all while they are pleased with God. (Q 9:100)
These qualities of the Companions (rta) of the Prophet (sws) have been mentioned in the following verses of Sūrah al-Ḥashr (Q 59):
[This is specifically] for those of the needy Emigrants who have been forced to abandon their homes and assets while they were helping the Messenger of God, seeking God's blessings and His pleasure. Such are the real upholders of truth. Those who are already settled in their abodes and are maintaining their faith love those who migrate to them. They do not feel unease at heart for whatever is given to them (the Emigrants). They (the Helpers) prefer them (the Emigrants) over themselves even when they themselves are in need. (Q 59:8-9)
If we carefully ponder over these verses, we learn that they not only establish veracity and justness of the Companions (rta) but also award them an exalted status, both in this and the next world. This quality cannot be shared with them by any other group of people from among the ummah. The Qur'ān does not state that this status is granted to them because they happened to have seen the Prophet (sws). Contrarily, their blessed status draws on their outreaching others in accepting the faith. They migrated from their homeland, abandoned their assets and wealth for the cause of Islam and risked their lives in fighting for the cause of God. They sacrificed everything they possessed in helping God's religion and His Messenger. The helpers too participated in this noble cause by sharing their homes and wealth with the Emigrants.
If we keep the above discussion in mind, we can justly claim that the soundest view regarding the position of those who happened to have seen the Prophet (sws) is the one that has been ascribed to 'Ᾱṣim Aḥwal:
'Abd Allāh b. Sarjis has seen the Prophet (sws). However, he is not a Companion of him.
According to 'Ᾱṣim, one does not become a ṣaḥābī by merely seeing the Prophet (sws). Ṣaḥābiyyat does not hinge upon one's accidental meeting with the Prophet (sws). Thus, about the position of those who merely saw the Prophet (sws), we can, at best, adopt the following careful view ascribed to Shu'bah:
Jundub b. Sufyān came to meet the Prophet (sws) and you can say, if you insist, that he has been blessed with the ṣuḥbah (company) of the Prophet (sws).
Some other scholars express the true status and position of a person who accidently or rarely met the Prophet (sws) as follows: kāna lahū ru'yah [he saw the Prophet (sws)].
I believe that the opportunity to have seen the Prophet (sws) is a great blessing of God. However, the Qur'ān has not attached any importance to this fact alone. According to the Qur'ān, the high status of the Companions (rta) of the Prophet (sws), is due to their services to the religion, valour and bravery they showed in defending, upholding and preaching the religion and helping the Messenger of God (sws). The Companions (rta) are categorized and grouped by analyzing the degree and extent of their services to the religion and the Messenger (sws). If it is only seeing the Prophet (sws) that makes somebody his Companion (rta) then the deserters in the battles of Aḥzāb and Tabūk and the hypocrites of Madīnah and those from among the Bedouin, and those who established Masjid-i Ḍarār are no less deserving of this status. These people not only saw the Prophet (sws) but also fought some of the battles with him. They have been spending in the way of God though hypocritically. Yet, the way the Qur'ān condemns their behaviour and rejects their faith is not unclear to anyone, the details of which can be found in Sūrah al-Munāfiqūn (Q 63), al-Tawbah (Q 9) and al-Anfāl (Q 8). As far as the transmission of aḥādīth is concerned, we accept narrators from all the groups and categories of the Companions (rta) of the Prophet (sws). Still, however, in the exercise of interpreting aḥādīth we may only consider the views, wordings and analysis of the narratives of those Companions who are most prominent and famous for their understanding of the words of the Prophet (sws). For example, Abū Bakr (rta), 'Umar (rta), 'Uthmān (rta), 'Alī (rta), 'Ᾱ'ishah (rta), Abū Dardā' (rta), Mu'ādh b. Jabal (rta), 'Abd Allāh b. 'Umar (rta), and 'Abd Allāh b. 'Abbās (rta) etc. It is extremely important for the students of the ḥadīth literature to appreciate who are more knowledgeable and experts in the ḥadīth literature among the first generation of the believers.