The correct opinion - and Allah (Glorified and Exalted be He) knows best - is the first one. The evidence to support that is as follows:
1. From the Book of Allah (Glorified and Exalted be He)
Allah (Glorified and Exalted be He) says: “And the foremost to embrace Islam of the Muhajirun and the Ansar and also those who followed them exactly [in Faith]. Allah is well-pleased with them as they are well-pleased with Him. He has prepared for them gardens under which rivers flow [paradise], to dwell therein forever. That is the supreme success.” (Qur'an, Surah At-Tawbah, 9: 100)
Al-Hafidh - Ibn Hajar narrated in his commentary on this verse, with his chain of narration from Muhammad ibn Ka'b al-Qurazi, that the latter said: " 'Umar ibn al-Khattab passed by a man who was reciting the verse, 'And the foremost to embrace Islam of the Muhajirun and the Ansar ...' When he reached the words 'as they are well-pleased with Him', 'Umar took hold of his hand and said: 'Who taught you this? He said: ' 'Ubayy ibn Ka'b.' He said: 'Do not leave me until I take you to him.' When he came to him, he said: 'Did you teach this verse like this to this man? He said: 'Yes.' He said: 'Did you hear it from the Messenger of Allah (Peace be upon him)?’ He' said: 'Yes.' He said: 'I used to think that we (the Muhajirun) had been raised to such a level that no one after us would ever reach.' Ubayy said: 'The confirmation of this verse appears at the beginning of Surah al-Jumu'ah: “And [He has sent him (Prophet Muhammad) also to] others among them [Muslims] who have not yet joined them [but they will come]. And He [Allah] is the All-Mighty, the All-Wise” (Qur'an, Surah Al-Jumu'ah, 62: 3)
In Surah al-Hashr, “And those who came after them say: Our Lord! Forgive us and our brethren who have preceded us in Faith, and put not in our hearts any hatred against those who have believed. Our Lord! You are indeed full of kindness, Most Merciful”. (Qur'an, Surah al-Hashr, 59: 10); and in Surah al-Anfal, “And those who believed afterwards, and emigrated and strove hard along with you [in the Cause of Allah], they are of you. But kindred by blood are nearer to one another [regarding inheritance] in the decree ordained by Allah. Verily, Allah is the All-Knower of everything.” (Qur'an, Surah al-Anfal, 8: 75)
The reason why 'Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) asked this question is that he used to recite this verse [Surah at-Tawbah, 9: 100] with the word Ansaru [as opposed to Ansari, which is how Ibn Ka'b recited it], which would Indicate that the word as-Sabiqoon [foremost] was not connected only to the word Muhajireen. When it became clear to him that Ubayy ibn Ka'b recited it as Ansari which would indicate that it was also included with the word Muhajireen, he said: ''I used to think that we [the Muhajireen] had been raised to such a level that no one after us would ever reach - referring to the Muhajireen. These words of 'Umar's support the view of those who held the first opinion, who said that the views of all the Companions are binding, without singling out some of them, because dl of them are praised in the verse and are described as pioneers ('the foremost') in knowledge, virtue, jihad and actions. This verse was quoted as evidence by Ibn al-Qayyim, who counted it as part of the evidence indicating that it is obligatory to follow the Companions. He narrated that Imam Malik used it as evidence to prove the same point, and said that this verse praises the Companions and shows that they are entitled to be leaders who are taken as an example and whose views are to be followed. It also praises those who follow all of them or who follow each one of them, so long as that does not go against any Sharia text.
Among the evidence for that is the verse in which Allah (Glorified and Exalted be He) says: “You [true believers in Islamic Monotheism, and real followers of Prophet Muhammad and his Sunnah] are the best of peoples ever raised up for mankind; you enjoin al-Ma'roof [i.e. Islamic Monotheism and all that Islam has ordained] and forbid al-Munkar [polytheism, disbelief and all that Islam has forbidden], and you believe in Allah.” (Qur’an, Surah Al-‘Imran, 3: 110). In his commentary on this verse, Ibn Jareer narrated, with his chain of narration from ad-Dahhak that he later said: "They are the Companions of the Messenger of Allah in particular.” Ibn Jareer said, after quoting this report: "This means that they were the conveyors of the message whom Allah (Glorified and Exalted be He) enjoined the Muslims to obey.” This verse was also quoted as evidence by ash-Shatibi, when he stated that the way of the Companions (may Allah be pleased with them) is the way to be followed and referred to.” He said concerning this verse: "This affirms the superiority of the Companions over all other nations. That implies that they were righteous in all situations, and all the affairs of their lives were based on following the teachings of Islam and not going against it in any way." Imam Ibn al-Qayyim al-Jawziyyah discussed in detail the issue of proving that the opinion of the Companions is binding by quoting these verses, and he highlighted the way in which the text refers to that. He did a good job and mentioned many useful points.
2. Evidence from the Sunnah
There is a great deal of evidence from the Sunnah, for example the words of the Prophet (Peace be upon him): "The best of people is the generation of whom I am one, then the second generation (after that), then the third.” His telling us that implies that they ate the foremost in all aspects of good deeds, especially with regard to doing and saying the right things. They are superior to others in all virtues, such as knowledge, action, faith, reason, religious commitment, eloquence and worship, and they are more qualified to understand every difficult issue. No one could dispute that except one who rejects what is well established and well known in the religion of Islam.” According to Abdullah ibn Mas'ood, the Messenger of Allah (Peace be upon him) said: "There is no Prophet whom Allah (Glorified and Exalted be He) sent to any nation before me, but he had disciples and Companions from among his nation who followed his path and obeyed his commands." Al-Bayhaqi quoted this hadith as evidence of their superiority and high status in knowledge, action and sincerity.
3. Evidence from other reports
It was narrated from Hudhayfah ibn al-Yaman (may Allah be pleased with him) that he said: "O people, follow the path of those who came before you, for by Allah (Glorified and Exalted be He) if you follow their path, then indeed yon will succeed tremendously, but if you drift away from it, right or left, you will be greatly misguided." Al-Khateeb narrated with his chain of narration from 'Amir ash-Sha'bi that the latter said: "What they narrate to you from the Companions of Muhammad (Peace be upon him), accept it.”
4. Sayings of the imams and scholars concerning the binding nature of the Companions' opinions
1. Ash-Shafa'i said: "So long as there is evidence in the Qur'an and Sunnah, then the excuse for not following then1 is invalid. If we find no evidence there, then we turn to the opinions of the Companions of the Messenger of Allah (Peace be upon him) or of one of them." He also said: "You have no right to give an opinion unless you base it on a reference point or a valid analogy, and the reference point is the Qur'an or Sunnah, the words of one of the Companions of the Messenger of Allah (Peace be upon him), or the consensus of the people."
2. Ahmad said: "Do not trust any of these people with regard to religious matters. Whatever comes from the Prophet (Peace be upon him) and his companions, follow it; then with regard to those who came after them (the Tabi'oon), the matter is broad in scope.
3. The opinion of Imam Malik with regard to the actions of the people of Madinah is well known, but he went further than that and regarded the opinions of the Companions, especially the caliphs who came after the Prophet (Peace be upon him), as binding.
4. Ibn Taymiyah said: "Those among these scholars who said that the opinion of a Companion is binding meant that this applies as long as there is no other Companion who gave a different view, and no text to the contrary is known. Moreover, if it became widely known, and no one objected to it, that may be regarded as approval for this opinion. So if it is known that they approved it and no one objected to it, it may be said that this is consensus by approval, because they do not approve of falsehood. But if the opinion did not become widely known, or if it is known that someone disagreed with it, then it is not binding and does not count as evidence, according to consensus."
5. Ash-Shatibi said, in his commentary on the words of the Prophet (Peace be upon him), ‘the path upon which I and my Companions are'. “This refers to what they said and did and the views they worked out. All of that is binding in general, and this is based on the testimony of the Messenger of Allah (Blessings and peace be upon him) for them in particular... So everything they said and did is something to he followed, without anyone else sharing this virtue, unlike others." He also said in al-Muwafaqat: "The way of the Companions (may Allah be pleased with them) is a way to be followed and referred to.”
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