Citation for Companions of the Prophet

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Afsaruddin, Asma . "Companions of the Prophet." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online. Dec 3, 2021. <>.


Afsaruddin, Asma . "Companions of the Prophet." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, (accessed Dec 3, 2021).

Companions of the Prophet

Known in Arabic as al-Ṣaḥābah or al-Aṣḥāb, the Companions of the Prophet are credited by tradition with having played a seminal role in shaping the early Muslim community and in laying the bases of religious, legal, and political thought. The Companions collectively were eulogized by the early biographer Ibn Saʿd (d. 845):

"All the Companions of the Messenger of God, peace and blessings be upon him, were models to be emulated, whose actions are remembered, whose opinions were consulted, and who voiced their opinions. Those who were the most prominent among the Companions of the Messenger of God, peace and blessings be upon him, listened to hadiths and transmitted them."

As this statement points out, of particular significance is the role of the best-known Companions in the preservation of the memory of the Prophet, his actions, and particularly his speech—that is to say, their role in the formation of the sunnah, the second most important source of law after the Qurʿān. The primary component of the sunnah is Muḥammad 's recorded speech, known as ḥadīth (literally, “statement” or “speech”).

On account of the importance of ḥadīth transmission in the development of the religious sciences after the Qurʿān and the indispensable role of the Companions in this activity, interest in recording the details of their lives emerged early. Biographical works written specifically to assess the reliability of the ḥadīth transmitters known as rijāl (literally, “men,” although entries on women transmitters are included as well), as well as works on the ḥadīth sciences, contain valuable information about the Ṣaḥābah and are often remarkably candid in documenting both the positive and negative traits of individual Companions. Thus the ninth-century scholar Ibn Qutaybah (d. 889) relates in regard to the prominent Companion Abū Hurayrah, for example, that ʿUmar, ʿUthmān, ʿĀʾishah, and ʿAlī rejected ḥadīths related by him as unreliable.

The candid portrayals of Companions found in early authoritative sources did not impede, however, the development of an image of the Companions as near-perfect individuals who exemplified the highest Islamic ideals in both their private and public conduct. One of the main impetuses for this evolution was the growing dialectical exchanges between the Sunnīs and the Shīʿī. The Shīʿī would progress from an earlier neutral stance toward the Ṣaḥābah to outright denunciation of the majority of the Companions for having withheld from ʿAlī what was assumed to be his preordained right to become the caliph or imam after the Prophet 's death. The Sunnīs, in turn, formulated the collective moral excellence of the Companions, who were defined as those who had interacted with the Prophet on a regular basis as well as those who had met him only once. The chronological excellence imputed to the generation of the Companions followed by the next two generations of Muslims finds full expression in a statement attributed to the Prophet, in which he remarks: “The best of people are from my generation, then from the second [generation], then from the third. Then will come a group of people in whom there will be no good.”

See also ḤADīTH and SUNNAH.


  • Afsaruddin, Asma. The First Muslims: History and Memory. Oxford, 2008.
  • Ibn Saʿd, Muḥammad. Al-ṭabaqāt al-kubrā. Edited by Muḥammad ʿAbd al-Qādir ʿAtā. Beirut, Lebanon, 1990–1991.

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