It is a collective agreement [Ijmāʻ] of the scholars of Ahl as-Sunnah wal-Jamāʻh that the greatest person in this Ummah is Abū Bakr, then ʿUmar, then ʿUs̱mān and then ʿAlī, radiyAllahu anhum. The greatest Sufi masters have also affirmed this tenet of the Sunnī creed. Particularly, the Naqshbandī masters hold this belief firmly, not only based on the authentic narrations, but also by their Kashf.
Regarding the superiority of Sayyidinā Abū-Bakr, it is also a belief of Sunni Muslims that he is the best human being after the prophets.
There are numerous scholarly proofs regarding this core tenet of Ahl-us-Sunnah, including many Sahīh Hadīths and their interpretations by the Imāms of jurisprudence and creed. Repeating those arguments is not necessary here. Rather, I will emphasize on the quotes of the luminary Sufi masters who have affirmed this belief. This is in response to some Sufis who believe in the contrary and hold Imām Alī to be better than Abū-Bakr.
On the other hand, this post does not in any way show disrespect or diminishing of the dignity of our master Imām ʻAlī ibn Abī Tālib, who is the beloved of every seeker of the spiritual paths. No one can ever diminish his lofty status in the eyes of his lovers. Not only him, but even his sons, grandsons and great-grandsons are pupils of the eyes of true Muslims.
The master of all Sufis, the master of the Muslim nation, the center of sainthood, Imām ʻAlī ibn Abī Tālib radiyAllāhu ʻanhu himself has declared the superiority of Abū-Bakr over all others. He said the following words in a public gathering:
“Indeed Abū-Bakr and ʻUmar are the greatest in this nation.”
This is reported by Imām Dhahabī and quoted by Imām Rabbānī in his Maktūbāt. Imām Dhahabī also said that more than eighty narrators have narrated this from Imām ʻAlī.
Imām Rabbānī also quotes the following through Imām Dhahabī:
“I have been informed that some people consider me greater than these two [Abū-Bakr and ʻUmar]. Thus, however considers me greater than them, he is a liar and his punishment is the same as for a liar.” [Maktūbāt, volume 1, letter 266]
The light of the Ahl al-Bait our master Imām Muḥammad al-Bāqir (d.114H/733) alaihi as-Salām said in this regard:
“Whoever did not recognize the superiority of Abū Bakr and ʿUmar radiyAllāhu anhumā, he is ignorant of the Sunnah.” [Hilyat al-Awliyā]
Imām Ghazālī (d.505H/1111) writes in his magnum opus Iḥyā ʿUlūm ad-Dīn:
“And the best of the people after the Prophet sallAllāhu ʻalaihi waSallam is Abū Bakr, then ʿUmar, then ʿUs̱mān, then ʿAlī (radiyAllāhu ʻanhum).”
The head of the Awliyā, the greatest Ghawth and founder of the Qādirī Order, Sayyidinā Ghawth al-Aʿzam Sayyid ʿAbd al-Qādir al-Jīlānī (d.561H/1166) radiyAllāhu ʻanhu writes:
“The greatest among the four (caliphs) is Abū Bakr, then ʿUmar, then ʿUs̱mān, then ʿAlī radiyAllāhu ʻanhum.” [Ghunyat at-Tālibīn]
The great Sufi theologian, called The Greatest Shaikh [Shaikh al-Akbar], Muḥy ad-Dīn Ibn ʿArabī (d.638H/1240) quddisa sirruhu writes:
“Know that there is none in the Nation of Muḥammad sallAllāhu ʻalaihi waSallam who is superior than Abū Bakr, save ʿĪsā ʻalaihi as-Salām.” [Futūhāt Ibn ʻArabī]
Khwāja Muhammad Pārsā was one of the renowned deputies of the founder of the Naqshbandi Order Khwāja Muhammad Bahā ad-Dīn Naqshband Bukhārī. He writes in his book Kalimāt Qudsia:
“Amīr al-Muʼminīn ʻAlī, after His Prophethood (the prophet ʻalaihi as-salām), also received spiritual training from the caliphs of the Prophet who preceded him (Abū-Bakr, ʻUmar and ʻUthmān)”. [Kalimāt Qudsia]
The founder of the Mujaddidī Order Sayyidinā Imām Rabbānī Shaikh Aḥmad Sirhindī radiyAllāhu ʻanhu writes in the Maktūbāt:
“And the absolute caliph after the Seal of the Messengers ʿalaihi wa ʿalā ālihiṣ-ṣalātu was-salām is Ḥaḍrat Abū Bakr radiyAllāhu ʻanhu, after him is Ḥaḍrat ʿUmar radiyAllāhu ʻanhu, after him is ʿUs̱mān Dhun-Nūrain radiyAllāhu ʻanhu, after him is ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib radiyAllāhu ʻanhu. Their superiority is on the order of their caliphate.” [Maktūbāt, volume 2]
Imām Rabbānī considers this creed to be one of the defining characteristics of Ahl-us-Sunnah:
“The person who considers Hazrat Amīr (Imām ʻAlī) greater than Abū-Bakr, leaves the fold of Ahl-us-Sunnah wal-Jamāʻh.” [Maktūbāt, volume 1, letter 202]
Some Sufi masters even consider it a major sin to consider Sayyidinā ʿAlī superior than Abū Bakr radiyAllāhu ʻanhumā. Such is the creed of the great Naqshbandi scholar and author Shāh Faqīrullāh ʿAlawī Shikārpurī (d.1195H/1781), who writes:
“To call Ḥaḍrat ʿAlī radiyAllāhu ʻanhu superior than Ḥaḍrat Abū Bakr and Ḥaḍrat ʿUmar radiyAllāhu ʻanhumā is also a major sin [Kabāʾir adh-Dhunūb].” [Qutb al-Irshād]
In the light of these clear teachings of our masters, it is obligatory for a seeker to hold on firmly to this belief of Sunni Islam, together with extreme love and sincerity of the Ahl al-Bayt, which is also one of the core tenets of Ahl us-Sunnah wal-Jamāʻh.